An unassailable position of total weakness – U.S. Foreign Policy Since 9/11

  • Nathaniel L. Moir
    Research Associate in the Applied History Project, Kennedy School, Harvard University
Foreign Policy & International Relations

An unassailable position of total weakness – U.S. Foreign Policy Since 9/11

Among historians of the Vietnam War, there is a well-known story about a meeting between U.S. Army Colonel, Harry Summers Jr., and a North Vietnamese officer some years after the war ended in 1975. Summers pointed out that the United States had never lost a battle during the war to which the North Vietnamese officer replied, “that may be true, but it is also irrelevant.”[1] Over twenty years since the Global War on Terror began after 9/11, and now after the defeat of the United States and NATO’s mission in Afghanistan, there will undoubtedly exist many advocates of military operations around the world who share Colonel Summers’ frustration and perspective. Such military-oriented proponents, and especially civilian policymakers who turn to military power because they are unable to craft better solutions to serious problems, should think more along the lines of the North Vietnamese officer. Ultimately, US defeat in Afghanistan and the likely re-emergence of terrorism across the globe, along with other security concerns and costs, have multiplied because of an over-reliance on military power to solve core political problems in Afghanistan, self-made ones in Iraq, and elsewhere.

While the United States and its NATO partners are militarily and economically powerful, and while these capabilities are unassailable in a military sense, the U.S. and its NATO partners are also politically unable to achieve the unachievable in places, such as Afghanistan. As the historical record indicates, they also often fail to achieve sustainable policies or implement effective changes on which initial policy rationales for intervention were based. Events in Afghanistan since July 2021 serve as a gut wrenching reminder as to how quickly gains from the last twenty years may be lost and how genuine progress was a mirage.

Indeed, war in Afghanistan was not lost in a military sense. Political elites, and undoubtedly many military personnel, will invoke the confounding fact that it is almost always nearly impossible for the United States to lose on the battlefield. The Taliban, after all, did not possess an air force, resources, or logistics remotely comparable to the United States and its NATO allies. What political elites in the west are often unable to admit is that the Taliban had far more political legitimacy than their political competitors in the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan which the United States helped establish and to which it committed itself almost twenty years ago. While aircraft carriers, F-35s and F-22s all may conduct operational and tactical missions successfully, in the end they achieved little strategically and that is why military power is often irrelevant. It is a simple lesson that history teaches that is difficult to put into practice.

Unfortunately, there are many historical cases in which a U.S. tendency to over-rely on military capabilities and American economic strength proved unwise and how such power eventually proved to be irrelevant. In addition to the Vietnam War as an example, the rapid collapse of the Republic of China and its large military forces in late 1948 and 1949 offers some parallels with the collapse of the Afghan National Army and the Afghan Government, despite the United States investment of trillions of U.S. dollars. In the later stages of the Chinese Civil War after World War II, Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalist forces outnumbered the military forces of the Chinese Communist Party and received large amounts of US-supplied military aid. In late 1948 and through 1949, however, the Chinese Communists chipped away, defeated, and either recruited, conscripted, or killed Nationalist forces as they surrendered.

Chiang Kai-Shek and his Kuomintang Nationalist government’s demise was a collapse of political legitimacy. In this regard, there are numerous parallels between his severe problems, Ashraf Ghani’s problems in Afghanistan, as well as with the political leadership of the Republic of Vietnam during the Vietnam War. As Chiang Kai-Shek’s regime fell, vast numbers of his army and their military supplies came under communist control until victory was achieved and the People’s Republic of China was established in October 1949. In ways that were far more profound for world history than the collapse of the Afghan government and army, the Chinese Communist victory in 1949 changed the world. The Chinese Civil War, in all respects, was on the magnitude of the Russian Revolution and World War II and certainly a far cry from the importance of the Taliban’s victory in August 2021. What is similar, however, is how political elites in the west simply cannot understand how and why such reversals are possible. Unfortunately, wiser voices, such as those offered by U.S. Marine Corps General Anthony Zinni and even the U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, U.S. Army General Eric Shinseki, who warned against invading Iraq and general strategic overreach were not heeded. It is interesting and notable that both officers served during the Vietnam War and undoubtedly based their views on personal experience.

In an operational sense, just as the United States will now struggle to conduct “over-the-horizon” intelligence after leaving Afghanistan, past efforts to install politically legitimate governance from “over-the-horizon” has always been an unrealistic proposition. Unfortunately, such historical lessons from the Chinese Civil War, the Vietnam War, and others were insufficiently considered after 9/11. Perhaps in the same way that advocates for colonialist interventions in former colonies after World War II failed to see the unlikely prospects for their success in the 1950s, multiple presidential administrations in the United States and the NATO allies in the twenty-first century echoed an inability to apply history wisely after 2001.

Rather than focusing on how poorly the Biden administration mismanaged a complex and chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, analysis of the chaotic expansion of intervention in South Asia and the Middle East over the course of years were far more deserving of scrutiny. Instead of articulating the political benefits from intervention, calamitous withdrawals are often a manifestation of incoherent policy, unclear and shifting strategic goals, and compromised or insufficient resources to achieve shifting policies. All of these, through mission creep, contribute to a loss of political legitimacy used to rationalize continued and even increased military intervention. Instead of accounting for divergent perspectives, political elites in the United States mostly brokered no compromises and did not tolerate dissent when choosing to intervene in Iraq in 2003, a decision with epic consequences not only for the region, but which also distracted the United States from its priorities in preventing terrorism emanating from Afghanistan. Unfortunately, the political benefits of a multi-front war between 2001 and 2021 were not only non-existent, but also counterproductive even as they exemplified strategic incoherence.

What all these historical cases underscore is the importance of legitimate governance. The nature of defeat - in irregular and conventional warfare contexts – stems heavily from failures to focus on and sufficiently address that core issue.  Massive and powerful military force – as history demonstrates – can suppress fixing such core problem indefinitely, but only as long as pressure is applied. However, like pneumatic pressure created by water, military force does not consist of the same type of power found among those who are ideologically motivated and who coalesce around and commit to a cause. The central lessons of Vietnamese Revolutionary Warfare during the wars in Southeast Asia between the 1950s and 70s, are similar to those in that such perceived political legitimacy stands at the center of the Taliban’s ability to withstand immense western military power.

Revolutionary Warfare, in a critical sense, is not a holdover approach from Marxist-Leninist practice in the 1950s and 60s. Instead, it incorporates ideological motivations driving militant Islam – and ideology of numerous forms, like different octanes of gasoline – can fuel a range of militant beliefs.  Revolutionary Warfare is effective because it focuses on the functionality of power through administrating local populations, and this is based on achieving political legitimacy. To the frustration of many westerners in the late 1940s and as noted earlier, the Chinese Communist Party developed greater political legitimacy than Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalist Kuomintang Party. In a similar manner – and again to the disgust of many western audiences – the Taliban developed and wielded greater political legitimacy than the Afghan government. Ultimately, the idea that “foreign invaders” could not succeed in Afghanistan is less relevant than the fact that the Taliban positioned themselves as more legitimate than their competitors in the Afghan government.

As to the future, a central factor in whether the Taliban’s movement will remain sustainable will be found in its power and effectiveness in administering the Afghan people. Ultimately, such administering is where political legitimacy is lost or won. As Bernard Fall, a historian, journalist, and analyst of war in Indochina in the 1950s and 1960s observed, “A country that is defeated by insurgents is not being outfought, it is being out-administered.” This statement holds true in the contest for power during the Chinese Civil War and the Vietnam War, as much as it applies to civil war in Afghanistan. The Afghan government’s collapse in the span of a month was based in a serious erosion of legitimacy over the course of many years. Strategies found in revolutionary warfare, it must be said, helped to create the conditions leading to that rapid series of events, even though they were years in the making.

Unsurprisingly, problems related to governance in Afghanistan, and elsewhere, has long been a subject of study. What is often missing in those studies, however, is how military operations obscure problems in governance and often make them worse. According to a report, “The Evolution of the Salafi-Jihadist Threat”, authored by Seth Jones for the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington D.C. in November 2018, almost four times as many Sunni Islamist militants operated globally than existed in September 2001.[2] The CSIS study explained that military-oriented operations in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan – rather than suppressing militancy – often led to increases in local community recruitment when operations included civilian casualties.

In contrast to doing more with still fallible precision targeting, the study observed that “perhaps the most important component of western policy should be helping regimes that are facing terrorism improve governance and deal more effectively with economic, sectarian, and other grievances.” Rather than becoming less of a threat since 9/11, contemporary terrorist threats from all corners of the world have instead evolved through complicated contemporary information environments. In terms of social media landscapes and encrypted messaging apps - which did not exist in 2001- the terrorist environment is far more sophisticated and possesses much greater global reach than when the attacks on 9/11 occurred.

Terrorist threats have not only evolved in terms of technology, but also in the extension of franchising operations organizationally and through inspiring lone-wolf attacks in Europe, the United States, and in Southeast Asia. As Zachary Abuza, an academic researcher at the National War College in Washington D.C. and at Georgetown University noted, groups such as Jemaah Islamiyah, Kumpulan Mujahidin Malaysia, and Laskar Jihad, let alone the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) in the Philippines, have sought and benefited from ISIS expansion, even after the group’s demise in Iraq and Syria.[3] With good reason, ISIS-K in Nangarhar province has undoubtedly received the most sustained attention since Antonio Giustozzi wrote about the group in his 2018 book, The Islamic State in Khorasan.[4]  Yet, in Abuza’s view, the US withdrawal from Afghanistan has invigorated terrorist groups not only in South Asia, but also in Southeast Asia and similar phenomena should be expected across the Middle East, Africa, and Europe as well.

Human and financial costs associated with military intervention are another matter. According to the Cost of War Project conducted at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University, the United States spent 6.2 trillion USD (for a better visual representation, that is $6,200,000,000,000) on the Global War on Terror between October 2001 and October 2020 with over 900,000 total humans killed which includes all civilians, military, and contractors.[5] This does not include other costs associated with the long-term care of U.S. veterans, the cost of operations over the last two years, the massive operation to evacuate some – but not all – Afghans deserving Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) protection and assistance, and other factors. The ways that such resources might have been used for other initiatives – and with far greater effects and improvements in global health, education, infrastructure, and other possibilities – are too numerous to consider. Those were all lost opportunities because of insufficient strategic planning that could not restrain excessive and ever-expanding military operations.

The financial resources and technological investments made in the U.S. and NATO controlled military industrial complex that was deployed to conduct the Global War on Terror have been well documented, but for what end? As Emma Ashford, a senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, observed: “There’s no denying America is the most powerful country in the world, but what we’ve seen over and over in recent decades is we cannot turn that into the outcomes we want. Whether it’s Afghanistan or Libya or sanctions on Russia and Venezuela, we don’t get the policy outcomes we want, and I think that’s because we overreach — we assume that because we are very powerful, we can achieve things that are unachievable.”[6]

Despite many problems, it is useful to point out ways the US and its partners’ policies in South Asia and the Middle East might improve. There are perhaps endless opportunities that could benefit local nations, as well as U.S. and NATO foreign policy, and these depend on strengthened partnerships with allies across the region. While there are only four suggestions offered here, they may all be categorized as “soft power” – in the sense that Harvard scholar Joseph Nye uses the term. First, the United States should re-establish a U.S. Information Agency (USIA) to coordinate information operations under a single authority and in coordination with an equal NATO agency. There are too many achievements, particularly in U.S. delivered humanitarian assistance and in other areas, which are underreported and not even reported at all. The U.S. would do well to focus on economic and diplomatic outreach, but also in publicizing those efforts as a new cornerstone of its foreign policy.

Second, to facilitate new non-military economic and diplomatic initiatives, renewed and large-scale reinvestment in the U.S. Foreign Service should receive greater attention with funds allocated from unnecessary legacy defense platforms, such as Ford-class Aircraft Carriers which are increasingly vulnerable to attack by comparatively cheap and increasingly sophisticated unmanned aerial vehicles. Third, the U.S. must make significant investment in allied partnerships with countries across the globe, both economically and in terms of educational investment. Last, and as a strategic framework for developing these initiatives, diplomats and policymakers would benefit from closely considering Stephen Walt’s conception of “Off-Shore Balancing” in much greater detail.[7] Walt’s initiative encourages robust and more equitable partnered policy development, and his framework also incorporates and builds on local political, social, and historical knowledge to achieve political and economic solutions that benefit local civilian populations.

The long wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere since 2001 are failures with many sources. As the U.S. historian and military author Slam Marshall observed, "Disaster is less likely to derive from one gross blunder than from reasoned calculations which slip just a little.” A central reason for why those reasoned calculations slipped a lot over the two decades since 9/11 rests in an overreliance on military power to solve what is unachievable. Bernard Fall made one of his most astute descriptions as to why military power failed to achieve political goals in Vietnam after witnessing massive destruction inflicted by powerful B-52s. The U.S. in Vietnam, Fall believed, was in “an unassailable position of total weakness” because its military was strong but insufficient to solve the problems the United States and its allies faced. This is a lesson that remains to be learned.



[1] Harry G. Summers, Jr., On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War (Washington D.C.: Presidio Press, 1982).

[2] Seth Jones, CSIS, “The Evolution of the Salafi-Jihadist Threat: Current and Future Challenges from the Islamic State, Al-Qaeda, and Other Groups,” November 20, 2018.

[3] Zachary Abuza, “Taliban Return May Revitalize Southeast Asian Terrorist Groups, Benar News, 21 August 2021,

[4] Antonio Giustozzi, The Islamic State in Khorasan: Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the New Central Asian Jihad (London: Hurst, 2018).

[5] Costs of War Project, Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, Brown University.

[6] Emma Ashford quoted in Ezra Klein, “Let’s Not Pretend That the Way We Withdrew From Afghanistan Was The Problem,” New York Times, August 26, 2021,

[7] Stephen M. Walt, The Hell of Good Intentions: America’s Foreign Policy Elite and the Decline of U.S. Primacy (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2018).

: 11-September-2021

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