Afghanistan’s Importance to the Future of U.S. National Security

By David S. Clukey

September 11, 2021 will mark 20 years since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2011 (911) and United States (U.S.) President Joe Biden recently called for the complete withdrawal of all U.S. military forces from Afghanistan on this date. U.S. forces have been on the ground in Afghanistan since October 7, 2001. In this time, the U.S. invested over 240,000 in human capital and over $2 trillion U.S.D. From 2001 – 2010, after the immediate route of the Taliban, the U.S. orchestrated a series of disjointed campaigns and priorities shifted almost as frequently as commanders. This misalignment with a concurrent refocus of U.S. resources to Iraq in 2003, realized a deteriorated situation in Afghanistan. Conditions improved in 2009 under a series of pragmatic U.S. Army Generals who commonly advocated Special Operations Forces driven Village Stability Operations (VSO).[1] VSO (2010 – 2014) achieved quantifiable improvements through a nested application of U.S. joint capabilities. Unfortunately, VSO’s potential was not realized due to U.S. President Barrack Obama’s decision to drawdown of U.S. forces in 2014.

The tumultuous history of Afghanistan has reinforced threefold enduring dynamics: 1) never underestimate the resilience of Afghanistan’s people, 2) Afghanistan is the proverbial “graveyard of empires”, and 3) Afghanistan and Pakistan are inextricably linked. Understanding these dynamics without diving into the cultural nuances of the country, it is imperative the U.S. does not permit Afghanistan to deteriorate into the conditions that ultimately realized 911. The U.S. arguably did this once, and can trace pre-911 conditions in Afghanistan to the conclusion of Operation Cyclone (1979-1989)[2], when the U.S. supported Mujahadeen insurgency drove the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan. Once the Soviet’s departed, so did U.S. support. The Soviet backed Afghan-government crumbled soon after in 1992, and Afghanistan subsequently endured years of turmoil. First, civil war ensued as warlord factions vied for control, and ultimately the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) supported Taliban asserted its Islamic fundamentalist influence from its power base in Kandahar.

U.S. Foreign Policy, implications of the past shape the future

Understanding U.S. foreign policy and Afghanistan and Pakistan (South-Asia, not including India in this discussion) conditions during the 1990s that precipitated the terrorist attacks of 911, offer a glimpse of the dire implications of U.S. failed foreign policy. It illuminates what a potential U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021 may realize. However, even more compelling is 1990s dynamics do not replicate contemporary challenges to the U.S. including increasing global Chinese influence and fiscal prosperity, U.S. and Russia tensions, Iranian nuclear hedging, or U.S. internal political polarization and unprecedented divisiveness for that matter. However, the global threat of 1990s al Qaeda is replicated by a resurgent Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant - Khorasan's (ISIL-K) in Afghanistan. Although degraded, ISIL remains a global terrorist network whose resurgence in Afghanistan occurred with consistent pressure from U.S. supported Afghan operations and U.S. counterterrorism resources; al Qaeda also persists. What will happen when U.S. support and consistent overwatch and pressure through advanced technologies are removed?

What happened in the 1990s to realize the terrorist attacks in the U.S. in 2001? “Everything is interconnected.”[3] Below offers a succinct summary of interconnected factors that would be extremely negligent to revisit:

Abandonment: following the collapse of the Soviet backed Afghan government, outside of meager and inefficient United Nations (UN) humanitarian focused efforts, Afghanistan was left wanting for much needed international support. With no international assistance, recognized or functioning government, or ability to enforce rule of law, instability ensued.

Instability: civil war between rival criminal, warlord, tribal and drug lord factions dissolved traditional power structures.[4] This environment offered sanctuary to malign actors. U.S. strategic interest at the time focused on regional stability not Afghan instability; this vacuum coupled with lingering ISI support for the Taliban, enabled them to assert influence from their power base in Kandahar (1996 – October 2001).[5]

No U.S. coherent regional strategy: U.S. President Bill Clinton’s foreign policy focused on peacekeeping, relations with Russia and China and did not want counterterrorism as a focus. for his administration;[6] moreover, “U.S. officials saw little geostrategic value in Afghanistan,”[7] and ignored the Afghanistan and Pakistan’s interconnectedness.

Afghanistan and Pakistan Interconnectedness: Afghanistan and Pakistan are inextricably linked, dangers posed to Afghanistan by the Soviet threat also affected Pakistan. Pakistan contributed to the insurgency against Soviet occupiers through ISI tacit support of the Taliban. ISI continued to support the Taliban throughout the 1990s, contributing to their ascendency to power.

Safe Haven: as Taliban influence grew in Afghanistan throughout the 1990s, so did al Qaeda’s; albeit on global scale as a transnational terrorist threat. President Clinton recognized the extraordinary global threat posed by al Qaeda as well as the implications of Taliban endorsed safe haven for them in Afghanistan; however, “there was no clear American determination to get rid” [8] of either.

Not knowing what the future U.S. foreign policy concerning South-Asia (Afghanistan, Pakistan and India) looks like, or even the finalized priorities for the U.S. National Security Strategy outside of interim guidance, it is extremely important to consider the implications of ignoring, dismissing or not fully acknowledging threats to U.S. national security interests through inaction or non-deliberate foreign policy. Understanding the Interim National Security Strategy Guidance calls to “promote a favorable distribution of power to deter and prevent adversaries from directly threatening the United States and our allies, inhibiting access to the global commons, or dominating key regions.”[9]

It would appear President Biden’s call to withdraw forces from Afghanistan may be a bit presumptive, contrary to the interim guidance, and counterintuitive to national security interests. How does the U.S. inhibit access to global commons by ceding a pivotal counterterrorism battleground? Especially, with a hedging Taliban, resurgent ISIL-K and the Afghan governments precarious reliance on U.S. support. Additionally, how does the U.S. dominate key regions by vacating the only country conspicuously located between China and Iran? Notwithstanding how the prospects of withdrawal present an uncertain future for a country whose historical transitions of power realized considerable violence and displacement. The immediate implications of President Biden’s announcement and prior U.S. peace talks with the Taliban have realized a “38% increase in violence and attacks on civilians”[10] and a “wave of assassinations targeting prominent women, journalists and progressives.”[11]

Why Does Afghanistan Matter?

Stability in Afghanistan is key to U.S. national security interests, its geography, culture and border disparity contribute to terrorist safe haven. The following factors enable terrorist groups to flourish in Afghanistan. Some conditions are consistent with similar terrorist save havens around the globe, including Yemen, Niger and Syria. Albeit, conditions in Afghanistan are reinforced with uniquely severe terrain (extensive mountain ranges and desert), unique cultural and regional nuances, and the potential for tacit support and possibility for alliances with enduring Sunni Islamic fundamentalist terrorist groups like the Taliban, al Qaeda, and the Haqqani network.

Culture: Afghan tribal disparity, ethic loyalty, regional identification, and general lack of a national identity, with the Pashtun Tribe’s broader cultural impact and historical ascendency to power resulting in a general common understanding of Pashtunwali principles; specifically, Melmastyā́ (hospitality) and Nənawā́te (sanctuary). This makes everything in Afghanistan local and means what happens in the central government or the next village over is generally irrelevant. Great dynamics for anyone seeking sanctuary.

Islamic Fundamentalism: the Taliban enforced harsh adherence to Sharia Law and Islamic fundamentalism. Terrorist groups with Sunni Islamic fundamentalist ideologies can seek common ground and leverage this ideological alignment for safe haven and common interests. Conversely, the Taliban recently reached out to Shias in a move to generate political legitimacy and broader support prior to intra-Afghan peace talks.[12]

Safe Haven: mountainous., austere, and vast ungoverned areas: isolated noncontiguous. villages, generally from different khels (clans), and a historically contested border area with Pakistan including the FATA offer safe haven.

Rampant Corruption: civic institutions are generally constrained to Kabul and other accessible large population centers; however, those that do exist are systemically corrupt. The greater periphery and remote areas outside of Kabul remain autonomous and contested. This dynamic is compounded by the cultural nuance that Afghan’s respect the authority, wasta, of the individual person over rules (or formal government).[13]

Afghanistan’s severe geography combined with years of instability offered safe haven for terrorist groups like al Qaeda to set up training camps and devise plans that would ultimately realize the death of over 6,000 people on September 11, 2001. Notwithstanding, all who made the ultimate sacrifice in the almost 20 years of Global War on Terrorism that followed. Afghan sovereignty is dependent on U.S. support. These conditions will persist until Afghanistan pursues viable alternatives to promote economic development efforts to sustain itself. If the U.S. does not consider retaining a scalable presence in Afghanistan, it will very likely deteriorate into pre-911 conditions. To preclude this, Afghanistan may consider Chinese support. This will open the door to overt Chinese and Iranian influence. China expressed concern about terrorist safe havens in Afghanistan and may opt to fill the U.S. void[14] with peacekeepers.[15] With the recent resurgence of the ISIL-K in eastern Afghanistan, China has every right to be alarmed.


Afghanistan offers the U.S. key terrain to promote U.S. national security interests in Southwest Asia, it is strategically nestled between Iran, nuclear armed Pakistan and China. It offers U.S. designed, funded and built modern military infrastructure replete with secure airfields and hangers; notwithstanding, material assets and legacy relationships at all levels from over 20yrs of sustained U.S. presence.

I suggest an enduring and scalable strategy to retain Afghan sovereignty, encourage economic development, promote regional stability, and mitigate foreign and internal malign influence or safe haven.

Re-examine South-Asia foreign policy calling for Afghanistan and Pakistan cooperation.

Call for World Trade Organization, UN and Afghan governmental regulation of Chinese exploitation of Afghan energy and mineral resources.

Depreciate U.S. foreign aid to Afghanistan over time with incentives for Afghanistan to invest in alternatives to exploit untapped energy and mineral resources.[16]

Leverage poppy yields for legitimate revenue for medicinal purposes; advise provincial leaders to tax a small percentage of this revenue for infrastructure projects and policing (oversight is key as corruption is rampant).

Designate a scalable U.S. advisory force and separate counterterrorism mission.

Retain secure infrastructure to sustain U.S. counter-terrorism operations and a support contingent for advisors.


Before the US commits to withdrawing its resources from Afghanistan to justifiably end the “forever war”, it needs to consider viable and scalable options to sustain US strategic placement, continue counterterrorism, and sustain Afghan sovereignty through improved military capacity and economic development. It would behoove senior decision makers to review recent history and not reverse significant investments made, consider the impacts of relinquishing strategic competitive advantage through critical asset emplacements to China, and the dire implications of ignoring viable (ISIL-K, al Qaeda) threats to U.S. national security interests. It would be extremely unfortunate to make a politically digestible strategic decision that nobly ends a forever war, yet sets forth a series of degenerative events that ultimately replicate pre-911 conditions in Afghanistan. This time, with communist China, who seeks comprehensive national power, an opportunity to undermine 20-years of US efforts while simultaneously enabling People's Republic of China (PRC) advisors and military forces strategic access and influence in South-Asia - a move that would strengthen deterrence against U.S. military intervention in the region.