Hundreds of thousands of words will be written and spoken about Afghanistan and President Biden’s decision to withdraw all U.S. troops by Aug. 31. There will be endless debates about whether it was the right decision and, if not, what should have been done differently. In this, the pattern of the last 20 years will repeat itself, both in the political, as well as the academic, arena.
Yet, what is striking about these debates is not only that they are, at least to a certain extent, repetitive, but what they leave out of the conversation. Critically, whilst these debates focus on the decisions taken over time, they rarely focus on the questions upon which these decisions have been based. It is these questions that hold a lot of insight into what is happening in Afghanistan.
In many ways, Biden’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops after 20 years in Afghanistan both makes sense and is logical. In his recent speech to the nation, he points out that there is no prospect of achieving something over the next couple of years which has not been achieved over the last twenty. This is surely correct. Biden went further and argued that there was no longer any clarity about U.S. and allied objectives and that, as a result, the war had become aimless. That, surely, is also correct.
As such, Biden asked the question of what the U.S. was doing in Afghanistan and could not come to a clear answer around which clear objectives and strategies could be based. This led him to the question of what to do in response and the logical answer to not knowing what you are doing and why you are doing it is to stop doing it. As such, the withdrawal of troops quickly seems to make sense.
However, as is so often the case in response to a crisis, this leaves out a crucial third question which should be asked, and answered, before any action is executed: So, what does this mean?
In relation to Afghanistan, ‘so, what’ questions include: So, what does it mean to remove an important and powerful actor? So, what does the speed of the removal mean for the Afghan government, the Taliban, the population etc.? So, what does the removal mean for local, national and regional power structures? So, what does the removal mean for the people and organizations who worked for the U.S.? So, what does a quick removal mean in terms of logistical challenges for the U.S. and for Afghans? So, what does a quick removal mean in terms of protecting the achievements of the last 20 years – such as the education of girls – which were so crucial as justifications for the continued presence of U.S. troops during the last 20 years?
On and on it goes. It would be possible to write an entire text made up exclusively of ‘so, what’ questions in relation to Afghanistan. Biden, just as his predecessors and other allied leaders across the world, did not ask such questions. Politically, this can be useful: It strips out complexity and presents a problem (an endless war without clear objectives) in simple and understandable terms, allowing for a (seemingly) simple solution: bring the troops home.
However, the presentation of a problem as ‘simple’ does not make it so. Not asking the ‘so, what’ question as part of the policymaking process, does not make ‘so, what’ questions go away. These questions eventually will assert themselves as problems, the only difference being whether policymakers have considered, and are prepared for them or not. Biden evidently was not prepared, and the consequences are there for all to see.
What is also striking about the absence of a debate around the ‘so, what’ questions is how frequently they are not asked and how little policymakers and leaders learn from previous experiences. We can observe the same patterns in Iraq (So, what happens when a whole systemic power-structure is destroyed quickly?) or indeed, historically, in Afghanistan itself, the graveyard of empires (What does it mean to apply my superior firepower within particular local conditions which I do not understand?). There are countless other examples.
With that in mind, what does all this mean for U.S. (and Western) foreign policy going forward? Critically, I think it should mean a recognition of the limits of power. Power, and the actions which follow from it, need to be adapted to the local conditions within which they are being applied. Following on from this, it means the need to learn about these local circumstances and adapt objectives and strategies to them. This, in turn, means the need to bring in, and utilize, local knowledge and expertise and allow for local solutions to emerge.
The failure in Afghanistan was often predicted and cannot be ‘undone’. What can flow from it, though, is, finally a different way of ‘doing’ foreign policy which recognizes the limits of one’s own power. Whether this will, in fact, happen is surely doubtful, based on our historical experience. However, a first step towards this would be to include the ‘so, what’ question in our policy considerations. Whilst it will not lead to ‘perfect’ policy outcomes, it can certainly help avoid, or mitigate, disasters like the one we currently see unfolding in Afghanistan.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.
Kai Enno Lehmann is an Associate Professor at the Institute of International Relations of the University of São Paulo (IRI-USP) in Brazil, having previously held positions at the Pontifica Universidade Católica, Rio e Janeiro (PUC-Rio) and the University of Liverpool in England, from which he holds a PhD in International Relations. Dr Lehmann’s research focusses on regionalism in Europe, violence and corruption in Latin America, as well as the application of Complexity Theory to crises. He has done several pieces of consultancy work for the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development.