Last week, U.S. President Barack Obama announced that the United States would transfer the primary responsibility for combat operations in Afghanistan to the Afghan military in the coming months, a major step toward the withdrawal of U.S. forces. Also last week, France began an intervention in Mali designed to block jihadists from taking control of the country and creating a base of operations in France's former African colonies.
The two events are linked in a way that transcends the issue of Islamist insurgency and points to a larger geopolitical shift. The United States is not just drawing down its combat commitments; it is moving away from the view that it has the primary responsibility for trying to manage the world on behalf of itself, the Europeans and its other allies. Instead, that burden is shifting to those who have immediate interests involved.
Insecurity in 9/11's Wake
It is interesting to recall how the United States involved itself in Afghanistan. After 9/11, the United States was in shock and lacked clear intelligence on al Qaeda. It did not know what additional capabilities al Qaeda had or what the group's intentions were. Lacking intelligence, a political leader has the obligation to act on worst-case scenarios after the enemy has demonstrated hostile intentions and capabilities. The possible scenarios ranged from additional sleeper cells operating and awaiting orders in the United States to al Qaeda having obtained nuclear weapons to destroy cities. When you don't know, it is both prudent and psychologically inevitable to plan for the worst.
The United States had sufficient information to act in Afghanistan. It knew that al Qaeda was operating in Afghanistan and that disrupting the main cell was a useful step in taking some action against the threat. However, the United States did not immediately invade Afghanistan. It bombed the country extensively and inserted limited forces on the ground, but the primary burden of fighting the Taliban government was in the hands of anti-Taliban forces in Afghanistan that had been resisting the Taliban and in the hands of other forces that could be induced to act against the Taliban. The Taliban gave up the cities and prepared for a long war. Al Qaeda's command cell left Afghanistan and shifted to Pakistan.
The United States achieved its primary goal early on. That goal was not to deny al Qaeda the ability to operate in Afghanistan, an objective that would achieve nothing. Rather, the goal was to engage al Qaeda and disrupt its command-and-control structure as a way to degrade the group's ability to plan and execute additional attacks. The move to Pakistan at the very least bought time, and given continued pressure on the main cell, allowed the United States to gather more intelligence about al Qaeda assets around the world.
This second mission -- to identify al Qaeda assets around the world -- required a second effort. The primary means of identifying them was through their electronic communications, and the United States proceeded to create a vast technological mechanism designed to detect communications and use that detection to identify and capture or kill al Qaeda operatives. The problem with this technique -- really the only one available -- was that it was impossible to monitor al Qaeda's communications without monitoring everyone's. If there was a needle in the haystack, the entire haystack had to be examined. This was a radical shift in the government's relationship to the private communications of citizens. The justification was that at a time of war, in which the threat to the United States was uncertain and possibly massive, these measures were necessary.
This action was not unique in American history. Abraham Lincoln violated the Constitution in several ways during the Civil War, from suspending the right to habeas corpus to blocking the Maryland Legislature from voting on a secession measure. Franklin Roosevelt allowed the FBI to open citizens' mail and put Japanese-Americans into internment camps. The idea that civil liberties must be protected in time of war is not historically how the United States, or most countries, operate. In that sense there was nothing unique in the decision to monitor communications in order to find al Qaeda and stop attacks. How else could the needle be found in the haystack? Likewise, detention without trial was not unique. Lincoln and Roosevelt both resorted to it.
The Civil War and World War II were different from the current conflict, however, because their conclusions were clear and decisive. The wars would end, one way or another, and so would the suspension of rights. Unlike those wars, the war in Afghanistan was extended indefinitely by the shift in strategy from disrupting al Qaeda's command cell to fighting the Taliban to building a democratic society in Afghanistan. With the second step, the U.S. military mission changed its focus and increased its presence massively, and with the third, the terminal date of the war became very far away.