Twenty-four hours following the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, President Joe Biden addressed the nation with remarks explaining his decision to pull out of the country stating that, “it is not just about Afghanistan… it is about ending an era of major military operations to remake other countries.”
The retreat of American military forces has been interpreted by some as a signal that the days where US foreign policy rested on interventionism are over. Rather, what has increasingly become known as the ‘Biden doctrine’ seems to favour turning inwards and prioritizing the national security interest of the country.
However, the presumption that post-Afghanistan, Washington is going to abandon foreign military interventions is highly unlikely based on several historical and political factors. Over the last hundred years, the US’ position on armed interference abroad has undergone waves characterized by stages of military disengagement followed by other stages of active intervention. What we are currently witnessing is likely to be only another temporary period of restraint as America still has important geopolitical interests in safeguarding the stability of Asia and Europe, as well as an important presence in Africa.
Lifecycles of Military Interventions
The history of American foreign policy provides an understanding of the lifecycles of military interventions as it adapts to changing global environments, conditions, and threats. After the beginning of the Vietnam War, America decided to directly intervene by sending combat troops in what would be an eight-year mission, until President Richard Nixon ordered them back in 1973. Following this period, and an important decrease in public opinion about interventionism abroad, the US opted for a strategy of firmness but restraint, making a conscious effort to not hint at any intent of increasing military commitment. This trend was reversed again during the 1980’s military invasions of Panama and Grenada – which, although were not major armed conflicts like Vietnam, were still of importance – where both missions toppled the government in place in order to replace it.
Washington’s prudence and moderation in this sector ended with the 1991 Gulf War, after Saddam Hussein’s forces invaded Kuwait, which led to the deployment of US armed forces as part of Operation Desert Storm. The military successes of the 1990s (US-led military intervention in Somalia, Bosnia and Serbia, NATO’s victory in Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, but also the hard failure in Somalia) provided America with an increased confidence to intervene overseas. Interventionism was further embedded in the country’s foreign policy after the 9/11 attacks, where the war on terrorism turned into a war on American ideals. Years later, Barack Obama made a similar decision to the one taken by Biden, whereby he announced the end of the Iraq combat operations in 2010. However, this announcement was somewhat premature, as four years later the President ordered US forces back to Baghdad in order to fight the Islamic State (IS), and to this day they remain there.
US Doctrine & Geopolitical Interests
Amongst the most significant consequences resulting from the withdrawal of American troops is undoubtedly the new power vacuum that has been created, anticipated to develop a competition between China, Russia, and perhaps Turkey as to who will fill it. The current situation in Afghanistan is dire. With nuclear-armed states competing for influence on the ground with no NATO presence to temper them; the Taliban closer to China now more than ever; Middle Eastern states negotiating with Taliban members, ISIS fighting back; it is fair to say that geopolitical positions have been realigned. It is important to reiterate that one of the fundamental pillars of American foreign policy is the use of force to defend national interests both at home and abroad. This has been the case for centuries and is unlikely to ever change. The President himself has balanced out in recent weeks his talk of military withdrawal and intentions of moving away from interventionism with threats against ISIS and the Taliban.
“If the Taliban attack our personnel or disrupt our operations, US response will be swift and forceful. We will defend our people with devastating force if necessary,” he said. Adding that his government will not forgive nor forget the Islamic state – believed to be the perpetrators of the bomb which hit the Kabul airport – and promising that the US will hunt them down to make them pay for their actions. The question then remains to see if the country will intervene again to contain the presence and influence of its opponents in both Afghanistan and neighbouring countries. Additionally, within Biden’s intentions of focusing on China whom shares close relations with the Taliban, there is a possibility that his administration will inevitably have to get involved once again with Kabul, perhaps not with boots on the ground this time, but to attempt to stop Chinese forces to gain too much momentum.
Another reason to believe that the Afghanistan withdrawal will not take interventionism entirely off the table is America’s significant presence and geopolitical interests on the African continent. Currently, the country has approximately twenty-nine ongoing military operations and bases in conflict zones in the Horn of Africa, the Sahel, and the West Africa region which all focus mainly on counterterrorism. While the Trump administration had talked about retrieving part of the US forces from these locations, the Biden Presidency seems willing to maintain the high number of military personnel there as these regions represent highly strategic points for Washington. Having an already established military presence there, the US has in the past few years increasingly used its soft power (i.e. distribution of vaccines and aid) in Africa. It has been reported that it is also looking to increase and extend American involvement in part to fight drug trafficking which funds terrorism in the region. This indicate that while the US may be shifting its foreign policy priorities and resources towards China and Russia, it is in no way an indication that American interventionism is ending.