The US military is not an imperial police force. And yet, US policy in Afghanistan and elsewhere over the last two decades has normalized exactly this role. A change seemed possible just last year, when the Trump administration negotiated a deal to allow US forces to completely withdraw from Afghanistan by May 1, 2021. Under the terms of the agreement, the United States and coalition partners would gradually draw down forces and work to remove the Taliban from economic sanctions lists. In exchange, the Taliban would engage in intra-Afghan dialogue and prevent Afghanistan’s soil from being used to “threaten the security of the United States and its allies.” The removal of American forces on this timeline is now unlikely to happen. Instead, the withdrawal is delayed (possibly indefinitely) over claims that the Taliban is failing to uphold its commitments under the terms of the original deal.
The travails of removing US troops from Afghanistan highlight a more fundamental question: Does US national security require indefinite, low-level military engagement globally? On the one hand, the presence of US troops in countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq, and, until January, Somalia increases the perception that American troops are involved in endless wars that fail to serve American interests and suggests that America’s overall role in the world is a contributor of war, not peace. This perception contributed to planned troop withdrawals during the last administration and current bipartisan efforts to repeal various congressional authorizations for using force globally.
On the other hand, there are prominent voices in the policy, punditry, and think-tank communities insisting that Americans must accept troops being indefinitely deployed into zones of low-level military conflict. Writing in Foreign Affairs, Robert Kagan maintains that “the relatively low-cost military involvements in Afghanistan and Iraq” are merely part of the “messy and unending business of preserving a general peace and acting to forestall threats.” Max Boot wrote in 2019 that US troops in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan are “policing the frontiers of the Pax Americana” similar to wars waged by the US government against Native Americans throughout the nineteenth century or British troop deployments on the “North West Frontier” of India, the crown jewel of the British Empire. While more measured in their description of the policy than Kagan and Boot, former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and former European Union High Representative Federica Mogherini wrote recently that the United States cannot leave Afghanistan so long as the potential for it to become a haven for terrorist threats remains. What links these perspectives is a view that continual, low-level fighting, while perhaps unfortunate, is necessary to prevent the rise of a greater threat to the United States or the ”international order” it maintains. Sadly, this idea is not new. It lies at the core of what is called “imperial policing.”
A Regrettable Necessity?
The phrase “imperial policing” is most prominently associated with how Britain adapted its post-WWI army for colonial policy. Retired Major General Charles Gwynn published a book in 1934 titled “Imperial Policing.” The book, which became an official field manual for the British Army, called for lighter forces to maintain control with firm and timely action. Constant vigilance with smaller forces would prevent worse violence from arising within the colonies. A key impetus for adopting the policy was the budget environment created by Britain’s “10-year rule.” The rule, articulated in 1919 by then Secretary of War Winston Churchill, held that the armed forces should formulate force size and budget estimates “on the assumption that the British Empire would not be engaged in any great war during the next ten years.” Imperial policing became a budget-conscious means of preventing large-scale revolts in the later years of the British Empire.
The United States itself has a history with such a policy, a point acknowledged by some of the above cited authors. From the original “endless wars” against Native Americans during the nineteenth century to the occupation of the Philippines following the Spanish-American War, the United States has long used seemingly indefinite, low-level conflict for the purpose of maintaining order. But the US government should not have been involved in imperial policing then, and surely not now. The model is flawed for several reasons.
First, it is explicitly a policy of maintenance, meaning it is designed to never end: the forces must always be present and engaging in a low-level fight. As the political scientist Josh Rovner recently wrote, “This vision does not imagine an end state, just as there is no moment in which police can declare victory over crime.” This is particularly true in Afghanistan, where no end state has been articulated to the American public and neither the achievement of military victory nor sustainable democracy lie within the Americans’ grasp.
Second, it is clear that imperial policing is not, in actuality, budget conscious. Admittedly, it is always difficult to conduct an accurate cost-benefit analysis with defense spending and its associated policies, as it requires consideration of alternative histories. This is why the Nobel laureates William Nordhaus and James Tobin refer to defense spending as a “regrettable necessity.” But the cost of the war in Afghanistan, for example, is estimated at between $1 trillion and $2 trillion. That seems far from the “relatively low-cost” policy Kagan describes it as. The perception of these commitments being inexpensive is likely due to them being “credit card wars,” primarily funded by debt. The low-cost perception is also inaccurate with regard to human capital. Nearly one million American servicemembers have served in Afghanistan over the last two decades. Partner nations have also contributed significant manpower.
Third, one must acknowledge the profound impacts such enduring deployments have at home. Most importantly, this large-scale rotation of Americans into combat zones has come with grave human costs in the form of servicemember deaths, enduring veteran healthcare requirements, widespread post-traumatic stress, and suicide. Furthermore, consider how imperial policing leads to a blending of military and actual police functions, which can then be brought back to the home country. The historians Georgina Sinclair and Chris Williams have detailed how the punitive practices of imperial policing used in Ireland since the 1920s were integrated into British domestic policing. This was due to a significant number of British chief constables having been recruited after serving in Ireland. A similar process has unfolded in the United States. The militarization of US police ranges from the use of military equipment by local police forces to the adoption of counterinsurgency tactics deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Finally, it is far from clear that imperial policing is actually effective at achieving policy objectives. Consider again Boot’s crude example of US wars against Native American nations. The aim of this series of low-level military campaigns was to expand and consolidate US westward territorial acquisitions. Regardless of what one thought then or now of that aim, it was not ultimately achieved by imperial policing. Those limited campaigns largely antagonized the Native American nations, making the aims more difficult to achieve. The “West was won” in the late nineteenth century only when American society dedicated itself to the horrible business of prosecuting military campaigns of destruction against native populations. As Kori Schake wrote, “It required using our technological and economic advantages to decimate other societies.” In other words, it was total war, not imperial policing, that ultimately achieved the policy aims.
This brings us back to the debate over whether to remain in Afghanistan. The initial decision to invade Afghanistan was justified. The country served as a base for al-Qaeda and the Taliban government continued to grant safe haven to Osama bin Laden. This is why, unlike the eventual US-led operations in Iraq, the mission in Afghanistan garnered widespread international support, as demonstrated by NATO taking a leading role through the International Security Assistance Force. But mistakes were made. Notably, the Americans’ decision to invade Iraq in 2003, regardless of the rationale, drew resources away from Afghanistan. Failure to consolidate victory in the first few years in Afghanistan allowed problems to reemerge and persist. The window of opportunity to secure a stable peace closed. The question became and remains: How long must US forces remain in Afghanistan or any ongoing conflict zone once a long-term peace on acceptable terms is no longer possible?
Marcus Hicks recently made an argument in this forum for staying the course in Afghanistan. While his appeal for a whole-of-government approach to complex foreign policy is cogent, the idea that prolonged intervention will achieve heretofore elusive success is, at best, questionable. Hicks himself summarizes the requirement as simply to “do a better job.” But is this even realistic when, despite twenty years of effort by considerably larger coalition footprints than can be mustered today, the observable realities are rising violence in Kabul and southern Afghanistan and the Taliban now controlling half of the country’s territory?
Others argue that remaining in Afghanistan is essential for reassuring US allies: the United States must and will stay committed until the job is done. In this sense, imperial policing is indistinguishable from US military basing presence in Japan, South Korea, and throughout Europe. Troops abroad, whether in conflict zones or not, demonstrate American resolve to support those who support US national security interests. But such an argument conflates reassurance (and whether it should happen, in the Middle East or elsewhere) and imperial policing. Even if you support reassuring allies, you can oppose the continuing US presence in Afghanistan if that presence has no discernable objectives and perpetuates the continuation of the country being an active war zone.
What precisely did the United States achieve with nearly twenty years of low-level war in Afghanistan? Some claim success because, by fighting them over there, no 9/11-scale terrorist attacks have occurred on US soil. True, another 9/11 has not originated from Afghanistan. But could this same end state have been achieved through partnership with regional allies, enhancements in technical surveillance and intelligence sharing, and punitive expeditions if necessary? Moreover, sensational attacks on US soil have also not originated in ISIS or al-Qaeda sanctuaries in a dozen other countries, while prolonged US troop deployments have provided a rallying cry and accessible proving grounds for transnational Islamist militants from North Africa, the Near East, South Asia, and further afield. Should the imperial burden of preemption now extend to these places as well? Others claim that Afghanistan now has a democratic government. True, Afghanistan has experimented with representative government over the past twenty years. But Afghanistan’s democracy is far from stable or developed. Indeed, it is likely to collapse.
Finally, what of the 2020 deal with the Taliban? The agreement extracted so little from the Taliban that the insurgent organization’s greatest concession might be signing a document that repeatedly states, like a wishful affirmation, that it is not recognized as a sovereign state by the superpower counterparty. It would seem that such an accord, excluding the actual Afghan government and facilitating a dominant role for the Taliban in Afghan politics, was possible much sooner than 2020. If this was the best deal on offer after years of diplomatic efforts and focused battlefield pressure during the Trump administration, as well as a surge to over 140,000 Western boots on the ground in the prior administration, what realistic objectives might be achieved by continued small-scale intervention?
In the end, imperial policing was a policy designed for the British to maintain empire on the cheap that proved neither cheap, nor effective, nor sustainable. History has demonstrated that empires must recognize when they are overextended if they want to retain their power and influence. Whether it takes form by conscious choice or accidental mission creep, imperial policing is neither a sound nor a credible policy for the United States to continue to emulate in Afghanistan—where efforts have likewise been expensive, ineffective, and unsustainable—if it hopes to avoid the fatal mistakes of empires past.
Paul Poast is an associate professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Chicago and a nonresident foreign policy fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. He is author of The Economics of War, Organizing Democracy, and Arguing About Alliances. Follow him on Twitter: @ProfPaulPoast.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: Staff Sgt. Joseph Swafford, US Air Force