Afghanistan and the Future of US Foreign Policy

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Ten years after the 9/11 attacks and the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, one thing is clear-the United States now seeks to export security around the world. Beyond counterterrorism efforts to combat al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, U.S. strategy attempts to support sovereign governments with the necessary tools to reduce security deficits that give rise to regional instability and international terrorism. The case of Afghanistan is instructive. While al-Qaeda brought the United States and its allies to Central Asia in 2001, the 2011 strategy in Afghanistan is focused on supporting the Afghan government and empowering its security forces to assume security lead from NATO forces by December 2014.

What is true in Afghanistan is increasingly true throughout the world. U.S. military strategy reinforces sovereignty by partnering with nearly every military in the world. Over the last decade, the American security assistance program expanded from about 50 to 150 countries. Funded through the Department of State, security assistance is implemented by the Department of Defense. This type of assistance includes bringing foreign officers to the United States to teach them how to pilot helicopters, to helping countries control their maritime space by providing ships and training.

In contrast to the Cold War, when countering a "peer competitor" in the Soviet Union was the fundamental organizing principle of the international system, "weak states" preoccupy strategic thinkers today. The 2011 National Military Strategy of the United States underscored this by noting, "In this interdependent world, the enduring interests of the United States are increasingly tied to those of other state and non-state actors." This preoccupation with weak or failing states is one of the enduring impacts of the last decade.

The rationale for providing security assistance has been based on the assumption that instability breeds chaos, which could necessitate military intervention. Accordingly, the U.S. military should support other countries through military-to-military contacts, equipment transfers, and combined training activities to help foreign governments help themselves prevent tragedy. Since the United States has a dominant military and strong defense sector, countries increasingly choose to partner with the United States to take advantage of these assets. The United States generates partnerships to broaden its influence, gain access to strategic locations, and promote international security.  

To be clear, security assistance does not always translate into influence. Countries such as Israel and Pakistan, for instance tend to be more responsive to domestic politics than American pressure. Yet the new model of security assistance is a far cry from what the U.S. military practiced in most of the 20th century. Then, military assistance meant installing U.S.-friendly governments through the power of the bayonet, promoting insurgency to overthrow unfriendly governments, and arming friendly regimes regardless of human rights records. With Congressional oversight and Department of State guidance, security assistance programs today represent a maturity developed over the last decade. The United States aspires to create true partners that can confront their own threats to internal stability that violent actors can exploit. It also seeks to foster independence by training and equipping militaries to reduce dependence on U.S. forces. This is vividly on display in Afghanistan, where security is essential to promoting Afghan democracy and economic development.

Done on a mass-scale, the Obama Administration is developing and professionalizing a 305,000-strong Afghan military and police, which will grow to 352,000 by October 2012. Security assistance is intended to empower Kabul to assume lead security responsibility, which is done for about one-tenth the cost of international forces. While there are real challenges to this effort, including the insurgency, attrition, and corruption, growth could not have been achieved without unifying international efforts under the NATO flag, addressing underlying challenges like literacy, and active coalition partnering with Afghan units. At the same time the force is being developed, civilian control of the Afghan security forces is being actively promoted.

The United States did not get to this place easily. Stunted efforts in Afghanistan in the early 2000s were rooted in the belief that "superpowers don’t do windows." But the Taliban’s resurgence and proliferation of al-Qaeda affiliates changed the trajectory of U.S. foreign policy to address weak states. The challenges of supporting a functioning state in Afghanistan and Iraq have renewed calls for restraint. Yet, exclusively focusing on post-conflict zones fails to take into account the demand for security assistance from long-time allies such as South Korea, new partners like Georgia, neighbors such as Mexico, and strategic countries like Pakistan. While an undertaking on the same scale as the provision of security assistance in Afghanistan may not be repeated soon, the United States will certainly continue to help long-time allies and new partners develop their own security capabilities.

Derek S. Reveron, an Atlantic Council contributing editor, is a professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. He served in Afghanistan 2010-11. These views are his own. This essay originally appeared on Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel.

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