Following September 11, 2001 terror attacks against the United States (“US”), Bush administration initiated a strategy to annihilate terrorists at locations in which they reside.
In this direction, George W. Bush presented a doctrine based on neutralizing terrorists before they launch an attack, with a military action defined as “preemptive war or strike.” Bush summarized this doctrine by stating “when you see a threat, you got to deal with it before it hurts you.” This doctrine naturally required a different political and military attitude, however the application of this doctrine contained ambiguity. Critics of this doctrine often refer to the fact that unilaterally perceiving a person, group or state as a threat and acting before any concrete aggression against the US might result to misleading & wrongful results. Thus, this approach relies on the unilateral definition and identification of “threat” by the US. In case of Iraq, it was later concluded by the Central Intelligence Agency’s (“CIA”) Iraq Survey Group that Saddam Hussein did not have weapons of mass destruction (“WMDs”) and there were no concrete projects for the purpose of developing these weapons. This fact, by itself became a benchmark claim for the critics of the Bush doctrine. Furthermore, some critics of Bush claim that if the US have accepted an old and resigned Saddam, extremist Islamic terrorism (including the Islamic State) would not have emerged to this extent. This claim is also asserted by John Nixon, former CIA senior analyst who interrogated Saddam Hussein.
The Bush Doctrine
Obviously, Bush Doctrine has various other bases, including the promotion of democracy abroad to prevent the emergence of extremist & hostile anti-US terrorism in foreign territories. In principal, promoting democracy is a legitimate objective, however the issue which raised questions was the method of application. Promoting democracy through democracy assistance policies based on educational and political tools is one of the major constituents of traditional US diplomacy. However, pursuing democracy through armed penetration is a concept defined by the Bush doctrine. The doctrine mainly targeted the source of terrorism, rather than its implications. Therefore, identification of the threat was the first step of application.
As per the successful efforts of former CIA director, George Tenet, the responsible terrorist leader and group was identified imminently. Al-Qaeda, a radical Islamic terrorist organization and its leader Osama bin Laden was actively behind the attack. Moreover, it was revealed that this terrorist organization was provided sanctuary by the Taliban, an extremist Islamic regime that was ruling Afghanistan and further trained in camps in Afghanistan. In fact, bin Laden and the camps in Afghanistan were identified as threats against the US before 9/11. However, Bush administration did not take military action to kill bin Laden since he was not perceived as an imminent threat to US homeland. With its classical policy of cooperation with territorial allies, the US opted to fund the Northern Alliance, which is an anti-Taliban organization. However, 9/11 showed that this was not sufficiently deterrent, and following the 9/11, the US military started to hit Taliban’s installations and Al-Qaeda camps via air strikes.
This was a step to initiate the “Operation Enduring Freedom,” planned by General Tommy Frank, which had the following stages;
- Clearing the way for US troops,
- Hitting Al-Qaeda and Taliban targets, and delivering humanitarian aid to Afghani civilians by way of airdrops,
- Entering US armed forces and cooperating with the local forces to annihilate remaining Al-Qaeda and Taliban members,
- Stabilising the region and building a free society.
Operation was being maintained successfully and the majority of Afghani towns were freed from terrorist networks, and this forced the Taliban and Al-Qaeda to flee to Afghani mountains. After Taliban was taken under control in Afghanistan, George W. Bush shifted focus to Iraq, an oil-rich country led by dictator Saddam Hussein.
The motive for US military intervention in Iraq was factually ambiguous. According to Bush, Saddam Hussein was developing WMDs, and an enemy of the American people should not be permitted to acquire WMDs. President Bush granted 48 hours to Saddam Hussein to leave Iraq on March 17, 2003. However, Saddam Hussein did not comply with Bush’s order and decided to confront the US. Thus, on March 19, 2003, American and British air forces initiated a military operation against Iraq, targeting Iraqi military and government buildings in Baghdad. The US quickly toppled Saddam Hussein, but this brought the country to a chaos involving suicide attacks, extremist violence and instability.
Bush was aiming at reducing American military presence gradually as the situation in Iraq started to gradually stabilize. However, things got out of control, US’s military action resulted in a chaos and made Iraq a safe haven for extremists. Furthermore, casualties in both American troops and Iraqis were supporting the public opinion asserting that the US intervention was not the best choice. In this direction, critics of Bush started to claim that Iraq policy was a matter of controlling the oil reservoir, rather than ensuring US homeland security.
Indeed, even if Bush’s allegations about Saddam’s claimed WMDs were true, there would be other intelligence and security measures to prevent Saddam from posing a realistic threat to the US homeland security. Bush doctrine lacks the usage of preventative intelligence and measures of less-military presence. Thus, Bush increased the presence of US armed forces in foreign territories. As US’s perception of a threat increases, US military presence does. Bush doctrine was pretty ambiguous and risky in 4 main points;
• Naturally, when there is a direct foreign military intervention, this raises concerns under international public law with regards to the legitimacy of such an operation, and the US is challenged by various allegations of unlawful actions, and “hidden agendas.”
• As stipulated above, Bush doctrine required the presence of US military personnel and assets in foreign territories. Thus, US was being an open target in those territories for enemies. In this direction, risks of armed confrontation involving the US were also increasing as American military presence increases. Please note that the areas which the American military penetrates in were territories that are very well-known by local armed groups and territorial state forces. Thus, maintaining a war in these territories was a challenge that needed cooperation with the local forces. Indeed, collaboration with local armed forces was a must for the US troops to reach their objectives.
• It must be further noted that as the US, as a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (“NATO”) was increasing its arsenal and military personnel presence in various land & sea territories, including its NATO ally countries, it also was creating a risk of a scenario that can be tackled under Article 6 of The North Atlantic Treaty, which could initiate mechanisms of collective-defence.
• American military presence in foreign territories raised concerns on alleged human rights and international humanitarian law breaches by American military personnel. This is also a challenge that the US is facing both in terms of legal obligations and reputational loss. Indeed, Iraq is still perceived as an example of why US military presence must be questioned tightly. Thus, the international community pretty much lost trust towards US’s declared objectives & capacity to ensure its personnel’s compliance with legal obligations. It must be kept in mind that an International Criminal Court (“ICC”) investigation on alleged war crimes by the US forces in Afghanistan was initiated, which later resulted in Trump sanctioning the ICC special prosecutor Fatou Bensouda.
Therefore, Bush doctrine brought challenges and problems for the US that are still up to question. Obama and Trump tackled Iraq and Afghanistan, currently Biden does. Nevertheless, Afghanistan still stays as a complex matter of national security and international law which Biden might need to deliver to his successor, despite his firm stand for full-withdrawal.
“Bringing the American people back to home” was a politically correct statement embraced by all successors of Bush. However, they were not pretty sure on how to maintain a transition process without damaging the American interests. After all, US paid heavy prices for staying in Afghanistan, and throwing all the gains in trash could potentially damage the reputation of a US president more than not acting at all. In fact, if Taliban and other jihadist terrorists regain control in Afghanistan and start to launch attacks against the US and its allies (or even assume an attitude that is hostile), this will be a result that no US president can explain to the American public, which could also lead to an impeachment trial.
On 29, 2020, the US and Taliban signed the Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan between the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan which is not recognized by the United States as a state and is known as the Taliban and the United States of America (“Peace Agreement”). This agreement required the withdrawal of all foreign forces on the Afghani soil, in return of guarantees and enforcement mechanisms for the prevention of the usage of Afghani soil by hostile groups or individuals against the US and its allies. This definition seems pretty ambiguous when it is considered that there is no definite list of “US allies” and “groups or individuals against the US.”
These concepts are pretty much dependent on unilateral diplomatic choices of the US. There are obviously various other indicators that can be used when determining these groups or individuals. For example, persons and groups listed under the Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons List (“SDN List”) and other sanctions documents issued by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (“OFAC”) would fall under the scope of the Peace Agreement. However, this does not really lead to a definite determination. For example, a verbal statement or written private message’s situation under the Peace Agreement remains ambiguous.
The Peace Agreement
As stipulated under Part One of the Peace Agreement, the elements to be withdrawn from Afghanistan are “all military forces of the United States, its allies, and Coalition partners, including all non-diplomatic civilian personnel, private security contractors, trainers, advisors, and supporting services personnel.”
The Peace Agreement is actually a broader text that provides detailed obligations for the US, other than the withdrawal of troops. In accordance with Part One of the Peace Agreement, other steps to be initiated are;
- Releasing of combat & political prisoners from both Taliban and US sides (“confidence building measure”),
- Initiation of an administrative review of current US sanctions and rewards list of Taliban members (please note that this is not a pledge to lift sanctions & that this will be under the sole discretion of the US administration),
- Initiation of a diplomatic engagement by the US with Afghanistan and members of the United Nations (“UN”) Security Council to remove Taliban members from sanctions list,
- Refraining by the US and its allies from intervening in Afghanistan’s domestic affairs and refraining from the threat or the use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Afghanistan.
Part Two stipulates the obligations of Taliban. In this direction, Taliban is obliged to;
- Prevent its members, other individuals or groups, including al-Qaeda from using Afghani soil to threaten the security of the US and its allies,
- Send a clear message that those who pose a threat to the security of the United States and its allies have no place in Afghanistan, and will instruct members of the Taliban not to cooperate with groups or individuals threatening the security of the United States and its allies,
- Prevent any group or individual in Afghanistan from threatening the security of the United States and its allies; to prevent them from recruiting, training, and fundraising; not host them,
- Deal with those seeking asylum or residence in Afghanistan according to international migration law and the commitments of the Peace Agreement, so that such persons do not pose a threat to the security of the US and its allies,
- Not to provide visas, passports, travel permits, or other legal documents to those who pose a threat to the security of the US and its allies to enter Afghanistan.
These provisions are pretty general and needs detailed execution procedures for applicability. Various terms in the agreement seeks for the unilateral definition of “threat” by the US. Thus, even if the US undertakes not to intervene in the domestic affairs of Afghanistan, this agreement, by itself gives room for the US to direct the Taliban by way of provisions seeking US’s identification.
Moreover, the legitimacy of the Peace Agreement is controversial. It is not a “treaty” under the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties (“VCLT”), since Part 1, Article 2, paragraph 1 of the VCLT requires a document to be signed between states in order to be defined as a “treaty.” Taliban is an armed group that seeks to seize governmental power and rule Afghanistan. However, currently, Afghanistan’s legitimate government is led by Ashraf Ghani. Most of the authorities referred to in the Peace Agreement are governmental authorities which must be legally exercised by the Ghani administration. Thus, the idea behind signing this agreement with the Taliban might be the expectation that Taliban will gain governmental power after the withdrawal. US is aware of Taliban will have an upper hand against the current administration and might come to power. Currently, the Peace Agreement is incapable of binding Afghanistan, since it is not signed by the Ghani administration.
The foresight that Taliban might form the next government of Afghanistan is not declared by the US. However, it would be naiveness to think that the US does not foresee a possible Taliban-led Afghanistan.
One important factor that must be tackled is that the withdrawal decision reflects the changing nature of power play and warfare. Superpowers such as US and Russia tend to use proxies to pursue their national interests and goals abroad. These groups are usually armed groups, warlords or tribes. Thus, the changing nature of warfare does not involve a dominant presence of state-armies. US might be trying to apply the proxy-policy in Afghanistan for its future objectives.
The Peace Agreement is also an indication that refers to a possible US proxy-policy towards the Taliban. However, Taliban is a radical armed organisation that have been fighting with the US for a long time. This conflict resulted in serious casualties for both sides and neither side would be able to justify cooperation. American public would be so distant and reactive towards cooperation with the Taliban, and Taliban members & supporters would have the same perception against the US. It must be kept in mind that the Taliban declares the withdrawal decision as a victory gained against the US, which they call as an enemy.
The Peace Agreement is criticised by various politicians in the US. John Bolton, Trump’s national security advisor is a strong critic of Biden’s decision to withdraw remaining US forces in Afghanistan. Bolton claims that a full withdrawal will make the Afghani soil a safe haven for all jihadist terror groups to operate, and that the US cannot prevent this from happening remotely. In an opinion submitted to Foreign Policy, Bolton writes;
“To that end, the United States concentrates on gathering information on possible terrorist threats through a variety of mechanisms, not just the military. It is, however, the military presence and a considerable logistical base that enable much of this critical work. And it is in-country U.S. armed forces, which can scale up rapidly, that provide confidence that no sustained terrorist threat can reemerge while the United States remains. Removing the troops removes a key predicate.”
Indeed, even before the full-withdrawal, terror attacks started to intensify. Recently, a bomb attack targeting students in a hostel in Logar province killed 25 and another bomb attack to a school in Kabul killed 80 students. With these recent terror attacks, 105 people became victims of terrorism in less than 10 days. Taliban did not assume responsibility for these attacks. However, even if the perpetrator was not Taliban, it can easily be witnessed that the full-withdrawal decision gave confidence to terrorist networks operating in Afghanistan.
The Biden Administration’s Policy
Biden administration is planning to withdraw all US military personnel (except the forces protecting the US embassy and American diplomats) from Afghanistan before the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks. In this direction, Taliban is requesting the full-withdrawal by the end of May, in accordance with the Peace Agreement. The Peace Agreement granted a period of 14 months for withdrawal; however, this time-frame could not be complied with. Referring to this fact, Taliban made an announcement stating;
“The Islamic Emirate [Taliban] urges America and all occupying countries to stop making excuses for prolonging the war and to withdraw all their forces from Afghanistan immediately.”
Taliban’s hurry is not a surprise. It is a fact that Afghanistan will not be a safer place when the full-withdrawal is completed, this can be sheerly seen by Taliban’s declarations and intensifying terror attacks. Thus, even though Taliban refrains from publicly announcing, it will most probably opt-to gain control on the Afghani soil and fight against the central government led by Ashraf Ghani. The central government does not have the sufficient power and resources to fully defeat Taliban in the absence of US and NATO armed forces. In line with this fact, US Central Command chief General Frank McKenzie stated; “I am concerned about the Afghan military’s ability to hold on after we leave.”
Moreover, US is leaving Afghanistan before a sustainable settlement is reached between the highly armed Taliban and Ghani administration. Moreover, Taliban is exercising control and jurisdiction on a considerable portion of Afghanistan, and is not willing to compromise. In addition, no one can really guarantee that Taliban will act in compliance with the Peace Agreement. After all, following the withdrawal, there will be no true military force to imminently confront Taliban in case of aggression or non-compliance with the agreement. In this direction, the withdrawal removes the major deterrent against the Taliban. In fact, there are clear signs that the Taliban will initiate a higher degree of aggression against the Ghani government after the withdrawal. Currently, Taliban is actively seeking to find and punish people linked to the Ghani government. Aamir Sahib Ajmal, a chief of Taliban’s “so-called” intelligence service confesses their malign purpose by stating (in relation to government-linked persons);
“We will arrest them, and take them prisoner, (…) Then we hand them over to our courts and they decide what will happen next.”
Taliban is not even close to compromising for a sustainable and peaceful settlement with the Ghani government. They are seeking to topple Ghani and regain full control of Afghanistan. Therefore, there are 3 major risks in a full US withdrawal from Afghanistan;
- Taliban can initiate assaults and terror activities to regain control over Afghanistan,
- Peace process between the Afghan government and Taliban can come to a definite end and evolve into an armed conflict with the potential to kill and displace thousands of Afghanis,
- A possible Taliban-led Afghanistan will most probably be a hostile regime against the US and the West; and it will be harbouring jihadist terrorist groups with similar ideologies.
At this point, it must be indicated that there are also approximately 7,000 non-US soldiers in Afghanistan from NATO member states, Australia, New Zealand and Georgia. However, these forces rely on American air support. In this direction, it is announced that NATO troops will also leave Afghanistan along with American forces. This flow of events is posing a high risk to the US and its allies, as well as Afghanis who do not want to live under Taliban’s oppression.
Withdrawal of US and NATO forces will leave the Afghani government alone with the Taliban. This will also result in diplomatic isolation of the Ghani administration. After all, US and NATO troops are also a key component of monitoring political, social and financial developments in Afghanistan, and deliver this information to the international community.
If the Taliban initiates a fight against the government to regain full control (which is likely), the country will be rapidly dragged to a civil war. Obviously, Biden administration has plans in such a scenario, however, confronting Taliban by land forces is the reasonable and effective way. In the absence of armed forces on the ground, the US will have to step in via air strikes against Taliban. However, as proven by the flow of events after 9/11, defeating terrorists solely through air strikes does not work. Afghanistan’s geographical conditions and landscape offers favourable conditions for terrorist groups to escape air strikes with little to no damage. Thus, penetration through land forces becomes inevitable for fully annihilating the terrorists in Afghanistan. For the same reason, Afghanistan is capable of serving as a safe haven for terrorist organisations. This is also one of the main reasons why Osama bin Laden resided there for a long time. In the same direction, Anthony H. Cordesman writes;
“It is also far from clear that more intense U.S. air attacks on Taliban forces will have any decisive effects. The loss of limited numbers of Taliban fighters as well as some key Taliban leaders and facilities will not offset the pace of their victories in the countryside or enable the central government to survive.”
It is clear that Taliban perceives the US withdrawal as a success. This is declared by Taliban’s deputy leader, Sirajuddin Haqqani with the following statement;
“No mujahid ever thought that one day we would face such an improved state, or that we will crush the arrogance of the rebellious emperors, and force them to admit their defeat at our hands. Fortunately, today, we and you are experiencing better circumstances.”
Indeed, leaving the Afghani government alone with the Taliban is undoubtedly the greatest opportunity that could be granted to the Taliban.
Another geopolitical aspect of the withdrawal can be tackled by way of evaluating Russia’s increasing dominance in Central-Asia. Putin is swiftly boosting Russia’s intelligence and military activities in Central-Asia and will most probably opt-to do the same in Afghanistan, following the US-NATO withdrawal. In case if an armed conflict starts between Taliban and the Afghani government, US would not be able to provide imminent assistance, other than air strikes against Taliban targets. But, Russia is able to materially intervene in Afghanistan and offer aid to the Afghani government, which will be a move that could replace US’s role in Afghani reconstruction process. Furthermore, despite the fact that China is not visibly increasing military presence, the space created by the withdrawal can also leave room for intensified Chinese diplomatic penetration to Afghanistan. This issue must also be kept in mind as a factor for putting forth the impropriety of Biden’s withdrawal decision.
In conclusion, Biden’s decision to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan will create a power vacuum, as well as the convenient conditions for Taliban to pursue its agenda of defeating the Afghani government and dominate Afghanistan. Naturally, this will also lead to Afghanistan’s evolvement to a safe haven for radical Islamic terrorism, just like it was before the 9/11 terror attacks. Thus, maintaining a robust military presence in the region would be the right decision. The Bush doctrine seems to be abandoned by Biden, but it’s just not the right time. In case if another terrorist threat against the US emerges from Afghanistan, re-commencing the Bush doctrine and penetrating once again might be the only, but the costliest way.
Research by Kemal ÜNAL