Washington's Colonial Conundrum in Afghanistan

Why the United States Cannot Stay Forever

This piece was published as part of The Future of Afghanistan and U.S. Foreign Policy, a collaboration between the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism and ForeignAffairs.com. (Photo: The U.S. Army / flickr)

The future of Afghanistan is crucial for three reasons. First, after a Marxist coup in 1978 shattered the patient process of 50 years of state formation, it has become increasingly unclear whether the territory bounding what we think of as Afghanistan can again become a sovereign state. Second, should a stable state fail to reemerge in Afghanistan, the political and economic costs to its neighbors and much of the world are certain to rise. Third and finally, how the international community approaches Afghanistan has direct consequences for other states whose futures are similarly in doubt and whose continuing failure generates similarly troubling negative externalities.

Afghanistan exemplifies a significant dilemma of modern foreign policy. The United States must either reconsider the merits of colonialism in some form, establishing a permanent administrative and security presence in ramshackle states, or endure the escalating costs associated with these states playing host to organized criminals and terrorists, and treating their own citizens with systematic neglect and abuse.

Since 2002, U.S. policy in Afghanistan has been fundamentally flawed, and as a consequence, Afghanistan’s people, its neighbors, and the rest of the world are worse off. The initial assault that routed the Taliban should have been followed by a rapid exit of U.S. and allied forces. The political moment demanded what nineteenth-century treatises on small war referred to as a “punitive expedition,” and nothing more. What followed instead was the inescapable pull of recovery, reform, and rebuilding. Pledges of aid to rebuild Afghanistan's economy and infrastructure were not met. Much of the aid that did arrive was subsequently either squandered or pocketed by greedy locals or private contractors. This created a habitat ideal for exploitation by insurgents and organized criminals (functionally, the Taliban are both).

Afghanistan’s prior status as a genuinely sovereign

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