Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Afghanistan: The End of the Line?

Steven E. Meyer


July 22, 2011
by Steven E. Meyer

This is the second of two responses to President Obama’s announcement regarding troup withdrawals in Afghanistan.


Last February outgoing Secretary of Defense Robert Gates cautioned that “any future defense secretary who advises the President to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should have his head examined.”

Perhaps President Obama had this in mind when he announced in June that 12,000 American troops would be withdrawn from Afghanistan by the end of 2011, another 23,000 by the summer of 2012 and the remainder at a “steady pace” until all troops have left Afghanistan.  But the American pain, loss and staggering inability to achieve the desired policy objectives in Iraq (where all American troops are to be gone by the end of this year) and Afghanistan echoes the sorry historical record of other large powers (Britain and Russia) trying to enforce their wills on this region of the world.  Just as with Vietnam, it could well take the U.S. decades to recover,  depending on whether the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan are taken to heart.   Sadly, however, if American history is any guide, we will not learn the lessons well or quickly because the interlocked, ruling philosophies of American exceptionalism and manifest destiny are firmly cemented into the psyche of our political leaders, irrespective of party.

The U.S. simply does not have the power, legitimacy or authority to sit astride the world the way we once did.  Our post-Cold War “unipolar moment” was not much more than that, a moment.  As a result, the U.S. is a declining power in both relative and absolute terms.  The sooner we recognize and accept this fact, the sooner we will be able to adjust our policies and institutions and play an appropriate, still considerable role in the world.  The records of Iraq and Afghanistan are not merely “blips” in American strategic history; they are important indications that the global landscape is in the midst of tectonic change.  There are three major indicators that point to American decline.

First, the U.S. can no longer sustain the staggering cost of engaging the world as we have in the past.  U.S. sovereign debt is $14 trillion and rising, and the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have contributed significantly to the depth of our debt.  Afghanistan alone now costs the U.S. approximately $10 billion per month. If this continues, resolution of the debt will be impossible.  Second, U.S. administrations of both parties have followed a foreign policy based on democratic nation building.  This policy requires massive amounts of time, effort and money.  But, it has never worked, at least enough to justify the tremendous investment the U.S. has made.  Democratic state building has proven especially difficult in “traditional” societies such as Iraq and Afghanistan and will be even more tenuous in an increasingly globalizing, post-democratic world.  Third, contemporary American foreign policy is built primarily on military power and, consequently, the American military establishment takes the lion’s share of foreign and security policy money.   But, the nature of warfare is changing quickly to one that blurs the lines between soldier and civilian, violence and politics.  “War” is now much more “decentralized” and now involves a variety of non-state actors as well as states as well as technologies. 

For much of the post-Cold War era, the U.S. has interpreted national interest in terms of military engagement.  This is a throwback to an earlier time.  Pursuing national interest this way no longer will work.  This does not mean that “military action” is not a legitimate option.  But, it needs to be much more judiciously and intelligently used than it has been over the past few years.  

—Steven E. Meyer is a Fellow at Center for Public Justice and a Partner in TSM Global Consultants.




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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”