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To intervene or not to intervene

13 Sep 2021

To intervene or not to intervene

13 Sep 2021

With the calamitous US exit from Afghanistan, and when everyone has been marking the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, serious questions are being asked about the future of military interventions overseas. Will the US and its allies be prepared to intervene militarily anywhere in the near future?  How should the issue of violent Islamist extremism be tackled if the hitherto preferred option of military options is shunned? Given the perceived failure in Afghanistan as well as other theatres such as Iraq, Syria and Libya, many believe that this may entrench isolationist and non-interventionist positions in North American and Europe.


The US departure from Afghanistan has attracted huge criticism. This has been levelled at President Biden from both those who supported intervention in Afghanistan and even those who opposed it. The stand-out criticism has been the manner of the withdrawal and the failure to anticipate and prepare for a swift collapse of the Afghan government with the Taliban taking over. Many argue that the US has betrayed its Afghan allies leaving them to suffer under what will be a brutal Taliban regime.  Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany summed up the frustration when stating: “it seems right now like it was all in vain.”[1]


Time will tell what happens in Afghanistan. What recent events have done is cast further doubt on overseas US military operations, and whether they do more good than harm. An opinion poll by Pew found that 69% of Americans say that the US failed in its goals in Afghanistan.[2]


Critics claim that it has also damaged the standing of the US globally. Allies of the US have started to query how reliable a partner Washington is. It was hoped that the four years of the Trump administration’s hard core, isolationist ‘America First’ stance was merely a blip.


Biden has, however, demonstrated that whilst he has a very different style from his predecessor, he also possesses strong isolationist tendencies. He claimed in August, somewhat in contrast to his position in 2001, that nation-building in Afghanistan ‘never made any sense to me’.[3] He too will place US interests first. The lack of proper consultation and cooperation with NATO allies is therefore not likely to be a one off. Biden put domestic considerations and calculations above international partnerships and he is not the first nor will he be the last US President to take this approach. He understands that much of the American electorate is fed up with these so-called ‘forever wars.’  Biden has therefore turned his back on the concept of nation building and has adopted a much narrower definition of essential US national interests.

Yet counter arguments are deployed too. The US has lost credibility as a result of those 20 years of endless war in Afghanistan. It is the longest war it has ever been involved in. Many are delighted that Biden has made this decision. Surely, some argue, this is a case of damned if the US remained, damned if it went. How would the US ever achieve the desirable circumstances to leave Afghanistan? As for isolationism, the US has always had this tendency in its domestic politics. Were it not for Pearl Harbor, would the US have entered the second World War? Likewise, the US has experienced plenty of painful costly overseas interventions before and many failed well before this century.

As Professor Lawrence Freedman has pointed out, US interventions in Vietnam, Lebanon, and Somalia all “ended miserably with loss of life and little achieved. They were all taken to demonstrate the limits of American power but none made much difference to the US’s core strategic alliances in Europe and even Asia”.[4]

Furthermore, the failures in Afghanistan were not Biden’s alone. One of the reasons the Afghan government collapsed is that it was so unpopular and widely seen as ineffectual and corrupt. The decision of the Trump administration to enter into a peace process with the Taliban gave the group a credibility it did not deserve, but also sent a signal that the US was prepared to undermine democratic and progressive forces in Afghanistan, which it duly did this summer.

But why has the US struggled in these wars? What might its leaders change in the future if they wish to reverse the trend of isolationism?

Avoiding civilian casualties in these interventions matter hugely in winning such wars. Sadly, the US use of force in Afghanistan was also frequently ill-judged. A jaw dropping 117,000 Afghan civilians died during the 20 years of the US presence.[5] Due to the high casualty rate, anti-US attitudes in Afghanistan hardened. The lack of sympathy from Washington officials also engenders this. This is encapsulated in the famous comment from then US Secretary of State, Donald Rumsfeld when discussing Iraq.  He told Fox News that “we don’t do body counts on other people.”[6] The perception remains that non-American lives, especially Muslim lives, matter less. After the bombing of Kabul airport in August, many media outfits gave higher profile to the deaths of the 13 American soldiers than the 100 plus Afghan civilians. Daesh atrocities attracted greater attention when they involved westerners as opposed to Iraqis and Syrians.


War fatalities are also highly difficult to verify. Airwars, an organization that tracks civilian casualties in wars, says that it can confirm 22,679 civilian deaths as a result of over 91,000 declared US strikes in the seven countries – Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, Libya, Somalia and Yemen – that the US has carried out major interventions in since 9/11.[7] Furthermore, Airways claims that the actual number of fatalities could approaching as many as 48,308 and that, overall, 300,000 civilians have been killed by all sides in these wars.


All military interventions require crystal-clear defined goals. In the 1991 Gulf War, the objectives were well-defined: it was undertaken to liberate Kuwait from Iraqi forces. But the aims of the post 9/11 interventions all suffered from a lack of clarity and mission drift.  Instead of completing the Afghan operation, the US became side-tracked with Iraq. Even in Iraq, it was never clear whether the war was about getting rid of the Iraqi regime, weapons of mass destruction, or even combating Al Qaida.

How wars are conducted matters too. Leaders prosecuting wars need to demonstrate consistently why they are doing it and that they are there to help the people in the affected countries. Very few Afghans and Iraqis ever believed the US intervened to help them.  President Bush had global backing in bringing those who carried out the 9/11 attacks to justice. This support started to erode from the moment he designated it a “Global War on terror”, with the attitude of “either you are with us or you are with the terrorists.” By defining Al Qaida as an ‘enemy’ as opposed to a group of criminals, the US administration elevated them to a new status whereby their hostility to the world’s most powerful state had forced it to go to war. It also begged the question of how armed forces go to war against ‘terrorism’, which is better described as a tactic rather than an ‘enemy’.


The US ceded the moral high ground by not pursuing these murderers as a criminal issue using the tools of justice. US global standing plummeted as news of torture, waterboarding, the vile images from Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, rendition, CIA black sites and Guantanamo made some question the ethics and legality of US actions. Although the likes of Tony Blair pushed universal values and the need to promote them, many Muslims and others asked: where were these values when, for example, the US used waterboarding as part of a state-sanctioned approach?


Any perception of US failure only serves to boost these fanatics. It is not just the Taliban which were celebrating NATO’s departure from Afghanistan, but Islamist groups across the globe ranging from Hamas to Al Shabab. The lesson for such groups is that with patience and resilience, they can outlast the US and its allies and that their struggle will therefore one day be victorious.


In addition, allies are vital to successful interventions. The most effective operations of this kind have typically involved large coalitions. The US has, however, used up a great deal of goodwill and trust which will be hard to recapture.


The lesson for US allies in the Middle East has been that the US may be a fickle friend. In Syria, for example, it is only the continuing US presence, one that President Trump wished to dispense with, that keeps the Turkish forces away from the Kurdish led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). As with the Afghan army, the SDF had fought on the ground against American enemies, in this case Daesh, with the US bombing from above.  Next time the US needs local allies in a given conflict, they are likely to be highly skeptical about America’s dedication to their protection. Friendly and cooperative local forces are a prerequisite for success, especially against armed non-state actor groups, because of their local knowledge.


Beyond the Middle East other allies will be concerned too. The British Defence Secretary, Ben Wallace, even questioned if the US could still be considered a superpower, a remarkable statement given historic Anglo-American security ties.[8] NATO allies wonder if the US will honor its commitments of collective defense under Article Five of the alliance’s charter, which means that an attack against one ally is considered as an attack against all allies. In Asia, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan may also be nervous about the value of the continuing US military presence in the region. European and Middle Eastern allies also face a looming problem if they end up hosting hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees when they deem this to be principally a US responsibility.


A lack of deep understanding of the local region in which the US operates was another consistent flaw. Following the invasion of Iraq in 2003, US leaders and even military commanders displayed limited knowledge of the country, a failing that was also evident in the case of Afghanistan. This resulted in the unrealistic view that US-led forces could just walk into these countries, quickly fix them and leave behind new mini-Americas. Any awareness of history and culture should have disabused any senior political or military figures from such crude assumptions.


Public opinion may not be impressed at US and allies attempts at military interventions and nation building attempts that have cost a considerable amount in blood and treasure. Some estimates suggest that the total costs of the 9/11 wars have been in the region of $7 trillion, though a precise figure is unlikely to be determined. The US’s key allies have also lost much, leading to waning public support. A YouGov poll conducted in Europe in 2018 showed that 52% of respondents opposed military interventions overseas, with 21% expressing no opinion.[9]


Many are therefore asking: was it all worth it? Is the US safer and did US action actually help the intended beneficiaries? This is tough to answer. Intrusive safety measures and security operations have made the repetition of a 9/11 style hi-jacking much harder to envisage.  The public may grumble, but there is a broad buy-in to these security measures including not taking liquids on to planes. But Daesh and Al Qaida can adapt, as attacks in Europe in recent years show. They understand that hi-tech complex operations such as 9/11 are not necessary if they can find soft targets and, for example, use crude methods such as driving a truck into a large crowd.  Such horrors are almost impossible to prevent and gain considerable publicity for the perpetrators.


But while the US may attract the overwhelming amount of criticism, European states too have questions that need answers. For too long US leaders, not just Trump, have with some justification complained that other states just expect the US to be the world’s policeman and do all the heavy lifting. NATO allies as well as EU states have failed to invest sufficiently in their defense capabilities. Hence EU states could not take action in Libya in 2011 without the support of the US. After the Biden administration decided to pull its forces out of Afghanistan by 31 August 2021, no combination of other NATO allies was prepared to keep Kabul airport open to secure further evacuations.


Many European leaders therefore support US-led interventions, but refuse to step up themselves. So, if the US does continue down this isolationist path, what happens when the next threat is on Europe’s borders and Washington does not answer the call?  Will this change? It is unlikely regardless of French President Emmanuel Macron’s ambition for what he terms “strategic autonomy.”


Wars should be a massive commitment. Too often, American and European states want wars on the cheap, opting for air campaigns which are low risk to their forces. Many leaders are completely averse to deploying ‘boots on the ground’. It reinforces the view among the extremist groups that western states do not have the stomach for the fight.


Support for interventions ebbs and flows. That said, in recent years, the tolerance of the public in Western countries for military action abroad has nosedived and it is hard seeing this attitude changing any time soon. That international leaders have become more inward looking is highlighted by the absence of true international cooperation over fighting Covid-19, with richer states often criticized for hoarding vaccines and not sharing the science to help defeat the pandemic once and for all.


The current anti-interventionist drift acts as a significant political constraint. Political leaders will have to earn back trust from skeptical electorates fatigued from wars in far off places they largely do not understand. The failure to discover Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq shattered that trust. Intelligence briefings are no longer automatically viewed as impartial assessments of a situation. If, for example, a US President wanted to convince American voters, let alone allies, that Iran poses a threat and was close to acquiring a nuclear arsenal, the task will be considerably harder and the evidence levels set much higher. Any proposal for an invasion will be met with demands for a properly thought-out strategy and exit plan.


Strong arguments exist against many of the US-led military interventions carried out over the years. Many are against wars under any circumstance. Others may be disciples of the likes of John Bolton, for a short time the US National Security Adviser under Trump, who is a consistent advocate of US military intervention. Trump was completely odds with Bolton’s views, which result in a strange and short-lived partnership. On one occasion, Trump even needled Bolton when meeting the Irish Prime Minister with the quip: “John, is Ireland one of those countries you want to invade?”[10]


Yet rising above this simplistic debate, all but the most ardent pacifists must admit that some circumstances may require both the threat and use of force. Many still point to the failure to stop the genocide in Rwanda in the 1990s or, going back further, the whole appeasement movement in the 1930s that allowed Adolf Hitler to build up the Nazi military machine. One wonders, therefore, that if these isolationist anti-war tendencies prevail, will the international community intervene to stop a genocide in the future? Would those intent on committing crimes against humanity feel more reassured in the current climate?


In some ways, the current anti-war tendency evident among Western public opinion and governments may have a positive effect. Intervention should never be easy. There are no quick fixes or easy options. It is a long-term commitment and not just one of military power. Politicians should have to show they have thought through all aspects of any operation and be prepared to commit fully to win over public opinion to the extent that, ideally, they can secure broad support for military intervention from well above 50% of their electorates. Yet any strategy, however well considered, is always compromised when confronted with reality. Wars are never predictable.


Perhaps most importantly, political leaders will have to demonstrate they can win the peace. The globe has a multitude of protracted conflicts, and few in recent times have been brought to a sustainable and peaceful resolution. Rather than look for new arenas for military intervention, maybe the wiser path is to invest in enhanced ‘soft power’ tools including diplomacy, peace-making and even conflict prevention.



[1] AFP, Allies round on US over Afghanistan ‘debacle’, 16 August 2021

[2] Pew Research Center, 2 September 2021

[3] Biden’s claim that nation-building in Afghanistan ‘never made any sense to me’, Washington Post, 23 August 2021

[4] Lawrence Freedman, The Times, ‘Afghanistan was a 20-year distraction from the West’s real troubles,’ 5 September 2021

[5] From Saigon to Kabul: what America’s Afghan fiasco means for the world, The Economist, 2 August 2021

[6] Fox News, 2 November 2003

[7] Tens of thousands of civilians likely killed by US in ‘Forever Wars’, Airwars, 6 September 2021

[8] Guardian, UK defence secretary suggests US is no longer a superpower, 2 September 2021

[9] You Gov Poll, 15-25th November 2018

[10] Axios, ‘Why Trump keeps Bolton’, 21 July 2019

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