Conflict and Leadership
How Much is Experience Worth? Twenty Years of US Experiments in the Middle East

The global wealth and influence of the United States was so great that it could simply afford a 20-year campaign with no practical value. With the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, the American government has reached the conclusion that this state of affairs has come to an end, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Andrey Sushentsov.

In 2006, the commander of the US armed forces in Iraq, General David Petraeus, outlined a new goal for US strategy in Iraq for the first time at a Congressional hearing — to abandon attempts at democratisation, build a new regime in the country and create conditions for the withdrawal of troops. Petraeus was somewhat ahead of his time, because Washington was not yet deeply disappointed with the results of US policy in the Middle East.

Many still clung to the illusion that the transformation of the Greater Middle East was possible and would entail positive consequences, not only for American influence, but also for regional stability.

In the 20 years since the early 2000s, the United States has come a long way in gaining experience with conflicts in the Middle East.

In 2001, riding a wave of international support, the United States declared a “war on terror” and overthrew the Taliban in Afghanistan in a matter of months. Almost immediately, it was decided to use international trust to overthrow another unwanted regime — Saddam Hussein in Iraq. The resources required were somewhat more extensive than in Afghanistan, and the resistance of the allies became much more tangible. Nevertheless, the United States took this step and over the course of a speedy military campaign, the American armed forces completely dominated the Iraqi ones. Euphoric, the United States announced that it was “transforming the Greater Middle East”, and began to hatch plans to invade Iran and to spread best governance practices to other countries in the region. This openly aggressive battle cry managed to impress someone. Libya abandoned its plans to develop nuclear weapons. This further strengthened the United States’ belief in the correctness of its path.

By the late 2000s, however, there was a growing sense that the United States had lost the initiative and plunged into protracted, low-intensity conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, where no light was visible. This period saw the peak of American researchers’ interest in the theory of asymmetric conflicts, in which the weaker side prevails over the stronger. This was reflected in the educational process as well — the frequent change in American priorities gave rise to new textbooks on international relations every five years, which first advocated the war on terror, then the elimination of the threat of proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and then democratic transformation. Two generations of the American military learned to fight in the mountains and work in an archaic tribal environment.

Global Governance
Afghanistan and Its Region After the US Withdrawal
Anatol Lieven
It is above all through money and economic development that will give regional powers their best chance of influencing Taliban behaviour and the future of Afghanistan, writes Valdai Club expert Anatol Lieven. If with regional help Afghanistan is able to develop economically, this will be the best guarantee of at least a limited space for modern culture and education, for without this the Taliban would lack the managers and skilled labour necessary to conduct such development.
Expert Opinions

By the beginning of the 2010s the United States elites had become entrenched in the belief that troops should be withdrawn from Iraq and Afghanistan. This was the first time President Barack Obama proclaimed this as a foreign policy goal. However, he could not fully achieve it, although it was during his rule that the United States neutralised the head of al-Qaeda Osama bin Laden in Pakistan and withdrew most of the troops from Iraq. Military circles constantly obstructed Obama’s attempts to withdraw troops, since the process could be accompanied by consequences which were unacceptable if America was to retain its international status. There was a real risk that the US-allied governments in Afghanistan and Iraq would collapse overnight, and those countries would once again become hotbeds of international terrorism. Donald Trump also planned to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, but due to the peculiarities of his character, irritation in the administration and sabotage by Congress, his plans were not implemented.

The withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan was one of the foreign policy steps of President Joseph Biden. Why did it happen right now?

First, it was argued that conditions had been created in Afghanistan where the government in Kabul could retain power for at least several months after the departure of the Americans.

Second, it had become acutely clear that the US presence in Afghanistan was not pursuing significant political goals. It was this idea that became the leitmotif of President Biden’s speech, in which he explained the meaning of the American troops’ withdrawal. This is paradoxical in itself. The United States has spent 20 years and about $1.5 trillion — an amount comparable to Russia’s annual GDP — on the implementation of a politically dead-end foreign policy programme.

Third, realism returned to American assessments, and Afghanistan took its due peripheral place in the hierarchy of American interests. The National Intelligence Council’s annual report listing American threats has deservedly put the fight against terrorism in one of the last places.

Finally, the United States has realised that it must concentrate its resources on the key area, the confrontation with China.

For 20 years, the United States had a painful experience in the Middle East and the whole world was a spectator in this process, without influencing American actions in any way. Why do Americans get away with their experiments so easily?

First, the United States holds the lead in global politics. There are no active and aggressive players at the global level, comparable to the US, which are ready to use force so aggressively across the planet to advance their national interests.

Second, the American assessments were greatly dimmed by the fact that for a long time, they had not seen any opponent comparable to themselves and rather belatedly turned their attention to China.

Finally, the global wealth and influence of the United States was so great that it could simply afford a 20-year campaign with no practical value. With the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, the American government has reached the conclusion that this state of affairs has come to an end. The painful experience gained in the Middle East is gradually being absorbed by the American elites, who have proved to be much more careful in the crisis in Syria than before in Libya. And in Libya they are now much more cautious than before in Iraq.

Afghanistan After the US Withdrawal: A Security Vacuum Forever?
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.