The writer was a ranking member of the US House Intelligence Committee after 9/11. She is author of ‘Insanity Defense: Why Our Failure to Solve Hard National Security Problems Makes Us Less Safe’
The manner in which the US exited Afghanistan a year ago has created doubt among its partners and allies around the world that it is reliable and competent. The decision to end the longest military mission in US history was the right one, but there are six crucial foreign policy lessons to be learnt from that chaotic departure.
First, is that the people of Afghanistan need continued US support — especially the women and girls whose dreams have been dashed by the rigid reimposition of the Taliban religious code, as well as the interpreters and staff whom we promised to protect. America is already the single largest humanitarian donor to Afghanistan. And the Special Immigrant Visas programme to resettle Afghan citizens who worked with US troops has also been streamlined and bolstered with additional resources.
Second, the US should show appropriate appreciation to its allies. A few months ago, I led a delegation of prominent women foreign policy experts to visit Al Udeid air base in Qatar. One story has left an indelible image. After the suicide bombing in Kabul airport on August 26 last year that left 13 US service members and an estimated 170 Afghans dead, a four-year-old boy was pushed toward an overcrowded C-130 plane. On his way, he picked up a small bundle in his path, which turned out to be a three-month-old baby. Now both children are healthy and being reunited with surviving family members.
What would we have done without the Qataris, who processed and helped relocate 80,000 refugees? The Emir has been welcomed to Washington and his country granted “special status” as a major non-Nato ally — a designation that enhances our partnership with a key Middle Eastern country.
The third lesson is to be choosy with military missions. A better model is the role the US has adopted in response to the unprovoked and illegal Russian war against Ukraine. President Joe Biden was clear that there would not be US boots on the ground. Instead, he joined Nato and the EU to provide arms and aid.
A rare and welcome bipartisan action by Congress is the near-unanimous support for billions in military and economic assistance. The Biden administration has also continued the counter-terrorism mission as evidenced by the killing of al-Qaeda leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, in Kabul. These are examples of limited and achievable objectives.
Next, avoid the kind of “mission creep” that occurred once the limited military mission authorised by Congress after the 9/11 attacks was completed. Many of us had doubts about the “clear, hold, build” and “surge” strategies which put the US military in charge of building western-style institutions in Afghanistan and propping up a military command structure full of endemic corruption. A particularly egregious episode was the visible support for Ahmed Wali Karzai, the brother of former Afghan president Hamid Karzai, so he would keep peace in the Kandahar region.
Fifth, Congress must stay involved. The 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force, which I and all but one member of Congress supported, has been the threadbare justification for 41 US military actions in 19 countries. Congress has never amended or replaced it. Updating the AUMF would be a great way to make the case to the American public for why and when US force should be used.
Finally, lesson six: a global strategy for US leadership is needed. It is past time to build a compelling case for American leadership in the post-cold war world. Understanding what the US did wrong in Afghanistan, finding ways to provide ongoing effective help there, and getting Ukraine and other challenges right would be a good start.