Afghanistan: Two Neglected Discussions

A U.S. Marine’s boot, on the ground, in Afghanistan.

On September 18th, 2001 Public Law 107-40[1] provided then-U.S. President George W. Bush the authority “to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.”  According to faculty research conducted at the Harvard Kennedy School, since the war in Afghanistan began, the United States has spent trillions of dollars[2] on efforts there.  These efforts entailed committing as few as 2,500 to as many as 98,000[3] U.S. armed forces members of whom 2,216 have died, and 20,049 have been wounded[4].  Despite these efforts, as of May 2017, the Afghan Taliban controls[5] 11 districts and influences 34 of Afghanistan’s 407 districts (approximately 11 percent).  While debates in Washington D.C. continue as to what U.S. policy towards Afghanistan should entail, two discussions have been neglected:

1. What are U.S. core interests in Afghanistan and what are their intensity?

2. Based on U.S. core interests, the intensity of these interests, the current global security situation, and the role of the U.S. in the world, are the members of the U.S. armed forces better employed in places other than Afghanistan?

In 2008, Alan G. Stolberg’s article “Crafting National Interests in The 21st
Century[6]” provided a useful definition of U.S. core interests and a framework for prioritizing national interest intensity:

Security:  “Protection of the people (both home and abroad), territory, and institutions of the United States against potential foreign dangers.”  This has always included defense of the American homeland.  Domestically, it would now include protection of critical infrastructure such as energy, banking and finance, telecommunications, transportation, water systems, and cyber networks.  America’s expansion into the world that began in the 19th century resulted in a broadening of the external portion of this core interest to now include components like protection against WMD proliferation, freedom of movement, access to key facilities, and assurance that U.S. national security institutions are transformed to meet the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century.

Economic Well-Being:  “Promotion of (American) international trade and investment, including protection of United States private economic interests in foreign countries.”  The 19th century American entry onto the world stage also ensured that this core interest would evolve to now incorporate expanded global economic growth through free markets and trade, to include the advance of globalization.

Democratic Values:  Until the 20th century, this core interest was confined to ensuring that the domestic democratic process and associated values framed the traditional American tenets of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”  The nation’s continued expansion into the world witnessed a change that in the 21st century can be said to include the promotion of democracy and human rights abroad.

All three of these, now 21st century core interests, have also evolved as a result of the American experience in the aftermath of the two world wars of the 20th century into what can be considered a fourth core interest for the United States:

Stable and Secure World Order:  A favorable world order based on the “establishment of a peaceful international environment in which disputes between nations can be resolved without resort to war and in which collective security rather than unilateral action is employed to deter or cope with aggression.”  Requirements for global stability in the 21st century world would also include secure alliances and coalitions, the security of regions or countries in which the U.S. has a sizable economic stake, and the need to respond to humanitarian or other concerns, such as response to natural and manmade disasters, protecting the global environment, minimizing destabilizing refugee flows, and support for health problems like HIV/AIDS and food and water shortages.

In August 2009, then-U.S. President Barack H. Obama appeared at a Veterans of Foreign Wars Post and declared[7] that “If left unchecked, the Taliban insurgency [in Afghanistan] will mean an even larger safe haven from which al Qaeda would plot to kill more Americans.  So this is not only a war worth fighting.  This [continued U.S. presence in Afghanistan] is fundamental to the defense of our people.”  Eight years later current U.S. President Donald J. Trump in his Remarks on the Strategy in Afghanistan and South Asia stated that[8] “In Afghanistan and Pakistan, America’s interests are clear: We must stop the resurgence of safe havens that enable terrorists to threaten America, and we must prevent nuclear weapons and materials from coming into the hands of terrorists and being used against us, or anywhere in the world for that matter.”  President Obama and President Trump similarly believe that to defend the U.S. core interest of Security, as defined by Stolberg, the U.S. must continue its efforts in Afghanistan.

After defining U.S. core interests, Stolberg then establishes a framework for prioritizing national interest intensity.  According to Stolberg:

For purposes of this assessment, using the work of Neuchterlein, Art, and The Commission on America’s National Interests, this chapter will use four prioritized categories of intensity, from high to low (Survival, Vital, Important, Peripheral):


These represent the single most important interests for any actor.  This is the very essence of the actor’s existence—the protection of its citizens and their institutions from attack by enemies, both foreign and domestic.  It addresses an imminent threat of attack and is an interest that cannot be compromised.  If not attained, it will “bring costs that are catastrophic, or nearly so.”  Whatever can be done would be done to ensure the survival of the actor, to include the use of military force.

Examples:  Prevent, deter, and reduce the threat of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons attacks on the interest crafting actor or its military forces abroad; Ensure the survival of allies and their active cooperation in shaping an international system in which the actor crafting the interest can thrive; Prevent the emergence of hostile major powers or failed states on the borders of the actor crafting the interest.


A vital interest exists when an issue is so important to an actor’s well-being that its leadership can only compromise up to a certain point.  Beyond that point, compromise is no longer possible because the potential harm to the actor would no longer be tolerable.  If the interest is achieved, it would bring great benefit to the actor; if denied, it would carry costs to the actor that are severe but not catastrophic.  Such costs could severely prejudice but not strictly imperil the ability of the actor’s government to safeguard and enhance the well being of its populace.

Examples:  Prevent the regional proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and delivery systems; prevent the emergence of a regional hegemon in important regions; promote the well-being of allies and friends and protect them from external aggression.


These interests would be significant but not crucial to the actor’s well being.  They could cause serious concern and harm to the actor’s overseas interests, and even though the result may be somewhat painful, would much more likely be resolved with compromise and negotiation, rather than confrontation.  It could increase its “economic well being and perhaps its security” and, thus, contribute to “making the international environment more congenial” to its overall interests.  The potential value, as well as potential loss of these interests, would be moderate and not great.  Important interests differ from vital and survival interests in the degree of danger perceived to the actor, and the amount of time available to find a peaceful solution to the issue.

Examples:  Promote pluralism, freedom, and democracy in strategically important state actors as much as feasible without destabilization; discourage massive human rights violations in foreign countries; prevent and, if possible at low-cost, end conflicts in strategically less significant geographic regions.


These interests neither involve a threat to the actor’s security or the well-being of its populace, nor seriously impact the stability of the international system.  They are desirable conditions, but ones that have little direct impact on the ability of the actor to safeguard its populace.

Examples:  Promoting the economic interests of private citizens abroad; enlarging democracy everywhere for its own sake; preserving the territorial integrity or political constitution of other actors everywhere. 

For this article let us assume the following:

1. That the Afghanistan safe haven risk[9], as professed by both President Obama and President Trump, remains true.

2. That al Qaeda desires little more than to once again use Afghanistan as a safe haven in which to plan, train, and launch attacks against the U.S. and that the Afghan Taliban will permit al Qaeda to do just that.

Based on Stolberg and the above-listed assumptions an Afghanistan once again ruled by the Afghan Taliban threatens the U.S. core interest of Security at an intensity level of Vital.  This situation seems very simple until one realizes that the U.S. must not only take care of itself, but also continue its post-World War 2 role as an underwriter of international security[10].  In addition, the U.S. armed forces have a finite number of members and are not omnipresent.

Backing away from the U.S. counterterrorism focus in Afghanistan for the moment, we move to the South China Sea (SCS) where $5.3 trillion worth of goods[11] moves through the sea every year.  This amount of goods represents approximately 30 percent of global maritime trade.  The People’s Republic of China (PRC) is the U.S.’s largest trading partner[12] with $578.6 billion in total (two-way) goods trade during 2016.  With the U.S. involved in Afghanistan and Iraq, the PRC pursued its period of strategic opportunity[13] and grew its power[14], to include building and militarizing islands, and aggressively pushing its so-called “Nine Dash Line[15]” claim, without being challenged.  When applying Stolberg’s framework to the SCS, we see U.S. core interests of Economic Well-Being and Stable and Secure World Order at an intensity level of Important and Vital respectively.

Traveling across the world to Europe we bear witness to a resurgent Russia[16] conducting hybrid warfare[17] with an eye towards at the minimum coercing, or, in the worse case scenario, invading and occupying its former Republics.  Russia conducts these activities under the protection of an umbrella of at least[18] 1,500 strategic nuclear warheads able to be deployed on intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarines, and heavy bombers.  When applying Stolberg’s framework to Russia and its military activities and taking into account U.S. security commitments as a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, we see U.S. core interests of Security and Stable and Secure World Order at an intensity level of Survival and Vital respectively.

Returning to Afghanistan, in August 2017, U.S. Secretary of Defense James N. Mattis ordered[19] an additional 4,000 members of the U.S. armed forces to Afghanistan, bringing the total number to about 15,000.  However, the number 15,000 does not measure the true impact of the U.S. continuing its presence in Afghanistan.  If the U.S. has 15,000 members of its armed forces in Afghanistan, then it has an additional 15,000 members on leave after returning from their Afghanistan deployment, and another 15,000 members preparing to execute an Afghanistan deployment.

Beyond the total deployment number being 45,000 members of the U.S. armed forces, there are other impacts.  For example, military training centers that provide pre-deployment training are involved and focusing on Afghanistan-specific training instead of how to fight a near-peer competitor.  Also, some members of the U.S. armed forces deploy as individual augmentees and leave vacancies in their home unit when they deploy to Afghanistan.  Some of these individual augmentees may deploy to Afghanistan from military services or military occupational specialties that are not land-warfare centric like the U.S. Navy[20].  While it will never be determined, or even investigated for that matter, one question worthy of asking is whether recent U.S. Navy collisions[21] are in any way tied to skill atrophy incurred when U.S. Navy surface warfare personnel spent too much time deploying to land-locked Afghanistan instead of driving ships[22].  Even the land-warfare centric U.S. Army finds itself lacking in the combat skills[23] needed to address the threats posed by a near-peer competitor due to too many Afghanistan deployments.

If the current manning and budget levels of the U.S. armed forces continue, and 45,000-plus members of the U.S. armed forces are needed for the totality of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan, the U.S. will not be able to provide for its core national interests of Economic Well-Being and Stable and Secure World Order at an intensity level of Important and Vital respectively regarding the SCS and the PRC; and will be unable to do the same for the U.S. core interests of Security and Stable and Secure World Order at an intensity level of Survival and Vital respectively regarding Russia and NATO.

The U.S. presence in Afghanistan, if it must continue due to a belief in safe haven risk[24], should be selectively contracted out, unlike Erik Prince’s plan[25], for any function that is not inherently governmental[26].  The contract should be written to allow only former members of the U.S. armed forces or U.S. government civil servants with appropriate training and experience to be hired into the majority of positions, and all of the contractors should be subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice[27], as has been the case since 2006.  Members of the U.S. armed forces freed up from Afghanistan duty may now concentrate on the actions necessary to manage Russia and the PRC.  From a U.S. point of view, Afghanistan will only be a “Graveyard of Empires[28]” if the continued U.S. presence there is unjustified, and the personnel on the ground are members of the U.S. armed forces doing a job a contractor could, and are therefore unavailable to manage threats to U.S. core interests posed by the PRC and Russia.  Whether or not Afghanistan is a Graveyard of Empires is based on the choices made by the Empire.  Hopefully, the U.S. won’t continue to overly militarily deploy to Afghanistan with its shovel and keep digging.

Is this U.S. Marine digging a fighting hole or the grave of an Empire?


[1]  (2001, September 18). Public Law 107–40. Retrieved September 02, 2017, from

[2]  Blimes, L. J., & Moynihan, D. P. (2013, March). The Financial Legacy of Iraq and Afghanistan: How Wartime Spending Decisions Will Constrain Future National Security Budgets. Retrieved September 03, 2017, from

[3]  Farivar, M. (2016, June 25). Envoys call for Obama to delay troop cuts in Afghanistan. Retrieved September 03, 2017, from

[4]  DoD Casualty Counts. (n.d.). Retrieved September 3, 2017, from

[5]  Roggio, B. (2017, May 1). Taliban controls or contests 40 percent of Afghan districts: SIGAR. Retrieved September 03, 2017, from

[6]  Stolberg, A. G. (2008). Crafting National Interests in The 21st Century. Retrieved September 3, 2017, from

[7]  Walt, S. M. (2009, August 18). The “safe haven” myth. Retrieved September 03, 2017, from

[8]  Trump, D. J. (2017, August 21). Remarks by President Trump on the Strategy in Afghanistan and South Asia. Retrieved September 03, 2017, from

[9]  Walt, S. M. (2009, August 18). The “safe haven” myth. Retrieved September 03, 2017, from

[10]  Obama, B. H. (2015, February). National Security Strategy 2015. Retrieved September 3, 2017, from

[11]  Fisher, M. (2016, July 14). The South China Sea: Explaining the Dispute. Retrieved September 03, 2017, from

[12]  Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, (2016). U.S.-China Trade Facts. Retrieved September 03, 2017, from

[13]  Gitter, D. (2016, May 28). Is China’s Period of Strategic Opportunity Over? Retrieved September 03, 2017, from

[14]  Kort, R. (2017, April 12). Anti-Access / Area Denial Options in the South China Sea. Retrieved September 03, 2017, from

[15]  Pedrozo, R. (2016, July 15). China’s Legacy Maritime Claims. Retrieved September 03, 2017, from

[16]  Ferdinando, L. (2016, May 04). ‘Resurgent Russia’ Poses Threat to NATO, New Commander Says. Retrieved September 03, 2017, from

[17]  Chivvis, C. (2017, March 22). Read Online Understanding Russian “Hybrid Warfare”. Retrieved September 03, 2017, from

[18]  Masters, J. (2015, September 28). How Strong Is Russia’s Military? Retrieved September 03, 2017, from

[19]  GORDON, M. R. (2017, August 31). Mattis Orders First Group of Reinforcements to Afghanistan. Retrieved September 03, 2017, from

[20]  Brown, T. (2006, April 15). CNO Meets with PRT Commanders Headed to Afghanistan. Retrieved September 03, 2017, from

[21]  BRADSHER, E. S. (2017, August 21). After Dangerous Collisions, Navy Will Pause for Safety Check. Retrieved September 03, 2017, from

[22]  Dutton, P. A., & Kardon, I. B. (2017, June 13). Forget the FONOPs – Just Fly, Sail and Operate Wherever International Law Allows. Retrieved September 03, 2017, from

[23]  Morgan, W. (2017, September 02). U.S. Army unprepared to deal with Russia in Europe. Retrieved September 03, 2017, from

[24]  Walt, S. M. (2009, August 18). The “safe haven” myth. Retrieved September 03, 2017, from

[25]  Prince, E. (2017, August 30). Erik Prince: Contractors, Not Troops, Will Save Afghanistan. Retrieved September 03, 2017, from

[26]  Inherently Governmental Functions. (2017, January 19). Retrieved September 03, 2017, from

[27]  Gates, R. M. (2008, March 10). UCMJ Jurisdiction Over DoD Contract Personnel. Retrieved September 03, 2017, from

[28]  Pillalamarri, A. (2017, June 30). Why Is Afghanistan the ‘Graveyard of Empires’? Retrieved September 03, 2017, from