In a speech to the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) last week, nearly twelve years after the U.S. intervened in Afghanistan and toppled the Taliban regime, President Obama spoke of a “hard earned humility when it comes to [the U.S.] ability to determine events inside other countries.” Recent events in Syria and elsewhere have hinted at the fact that the U.S. is no longer into shaping the world through regime change. At the UNGA, President Obama made it crystal clear. We all know from experience that it can quickly backfire. Toppling an unfriendly regime is easy. Finding a replacement isn’t.
As teams of CIA paramilitaries were first sent into the rugged valleys of Northern Afghanistan in October 2001, building a state there was not really on anyone’s agenda. The U.S. had learned from the Brits and the Soviets that long term involvement in Afghanistan was never a good idea. Getting sucked in was not an option. Yet, pre-emption, state-building, and regime change were all part of the plan, at least on paper (see the 2002 U.S. National Security Strategy). The result was an overly ambitious and at times contradictory foreign policy called the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT), which progressively led to complex, expansive, and largely unsuccessful state-building missions in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
These days are behind us, at least for a while. U.S. troops withdrew from Iraq and are now leaving Afghanistan. Yet, if one is to believe what President Obama said on Tuesday, that his country still plays (and has to play) an “exceptional role” in world affairs, one can only wonder what type of leadership and actions President Obama has in mind. Since 09/11, much of the focus of U.S. country assistance outside Iraq and Afghanistan has shifted towards identifying sub-state actors on the ground that exercise capacities to control populations and collect information about their social relationships and transactions. The idea is to work with our SOBs so to say, so that we can get information on the ones who threaten American long term interests and security. Overall, the trend seems to be towards controlling disorder more than imposing political order: keeping insecurity at bay, at least to a level that (U.S.) decision-makers deem acceptable. In light of last week’s tragic events of the Westgate mall in Nairobi, one can only wonder what the acceptable level is. Are countries like Somalia and Afghanistan orderly enough or do weak and failed states necessarily threaten international security?