The American strategy towards the Middle East is characterized by an overemphasis on military aid, rather than a long-term developmental strategy to safeguard American interests, particularly regional stability and counterterrorism.
The United States sends over 60 percent of its foreign military aid to the Middle East一the recipient of the most arms supplies of any developing region in the world. In stark contrast, the U.S. sends around 15 percent in economic aid to the region. This trend is poised to continue with the State Department’s FY2022 budget request for the Middle East, in which 71.8 percent of the budget requested was allocated for security assistance, compared to 28.2 percent for economic support and development assistance.
Military aid is intended to swiftly increase regional stability, but bolstering military capabilities in a politically-unstable region often has adverse consequences. Rather than pursuing long-term strategies to improve regional security, successive administrations have focused on quelling short-term security threats—a strategy some researchers have labeled “threatism.” This reactive approach has first and foremost damaged America’s ability to improve the security environment and indicates a myopic foreign policy agenda in the Middle East.
This strategy has had adverse effects throughout the region, notoriously in Iraq. When U.S. forces invaded Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein’s regime, the Bush Administration became involved in a nation-building campaign that dragged on for nearly a decade. Iraq already had a functional bureaucracy, which prompted President Bush and his executives to believe that they could target top Iraqi officials and replace them with more favorable leadership, and Iraq’s governing apparatus would continue running. The reality turned out differently, and Iraq fell into a civil war. The American military presence in the country was insufficient to prevent insurgency and protect civilians from the ensuing chaos, and the Bush Administration did not deploy new troops quickly enough to address this insufficiency. As one among several sectarian factions in the ensuing civil war, insurgents founded a new branch of al-Qaeda in Iraq in 2004. Almost as soon as al-Qaeda in Iraq was defeated, the U.S. withdrew militarily from Iraq in 2011; it had already essentially ended its minimal nation-building efforts in 2009. When ISIS formed from the remnants of al-Qaeda in the power vacuum left in Iraq, the U.S. again did just enough to end ISIS’s territorial control. Throughout American policy in Iraq over the past two decades, the U.S. has done the minimum to quell terrorist threats and withdraw as soon as possible, without having fully dealt with the problem or created a long-term stabilization strategy. As a result, new threats to the U.S. and allies have formed, and Iran has worked to increase its influence in its now weakened neighbor, Iraq.
The U.S. has also demonstrated a lack of effective strategy in the Middle Eastern conflict in Syria, also with negative consequences. From the beginning of the Syrian Civil War, the Obama Administration was clearly disinclined to involve itself. This attitude was evident when, after Syrian president Bashar al-Assad crossed Obama’s “red line” and used chemical weapons against his own citizens in 2013, Obama did not carry out his earlier promise to intervene militarily. Instead, he agreed that Russia would remove Assad’s chemical weapons stockpile; this decision symbolically handed the reins of foreign influence in Syria to Russia. The U.S. did intervene in Syria under Obama, largely in response to the rise of I.S.I.S., but it worked to minimize its involvement as much as possible.
The desire to avoid extensive involvement in Syria continued into the Trump Administration. The former president repeatedly announced his intention to withdraw from Syria and displace the Assad regime, but ultimately decided to push back the withdrawal. When the Trump Administration abruptly drew down the American presence in Syria, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units it had been working with collapsed. That is not to say that the U.S. should have gone into Syria with guns blazing; it is unclear whether that would have successfully removed Assad and created a better living situation for Syrians. However, if American officials were unwilling to invest in the Syrian conflict, they should not have intervened militarily. As things stood, American involvement in Syria in support of the rebels was extensive enough to prolong the conflict and further destabilize Syria, contributing to a massive refugee crisis that affected Syria’s neighbors and American allies, while being too little to topple Assad or effect significant change in his policies.
Present through American policy in countries like Iraq and Syria, efforts to reduce involvement in the Middle East are evident to regional leaders and that has had important implications for the region’s broader dynamics, including an increase in regional tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia. American withdrawal from Iraq and disinterest in Syria have increased Saudi insecurity about its future geopolitical status in the region and encouraged Saudi Arabia to adopt an increasingly confrontational stance towards Iran, in Yemen as one example. Because Saudi Arabia is an American ally and preferable to the success of Iranian influence in Yemen, the U.S. has provided logistical and intelligence support to Saudi Arabia and sold arms to the Saudis and Emiratis. The resultant indirect American support for Yemen’s oppressive dictator and complicity in human rights abuses undertaken as part of the war effort have reflected badly on the American image and contributed to one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world.
America’s inability or refusal to craft a long-term strategy in the Middle East has had negative ramifications for the countries there as well as for the U.S., and the present failure of the Afghan state is one more example of the consequences of America’s military-focused and short-term approach to the Middle East. Though there is debate over whether Afghanistan should be considered a Middle Eastern country, with most regional scholars agreeing that it should not be, American policy over the last two decades has grouped it with the region. It shares U.S. central Command (USCENTCOM) with the Middle East, and the U.S. public and government consider American involvement in Afghanistan as one of the failed wars of the Middle East.
After invading Afghanistan and removing the Taliban from power, the Bush Administration declared its intention to rebuild the country, emphasizing issues such as women’s rights and education. Development ostensibly remained an American priority in Afghanistan throughout the Obama Administration. However, during both presidencies, social and economic development programs in Afghanistan were often superseded by efforts to strengthen the Afghan military. Since 2001, U.S. military spending totaled 70% of foreign aid, or $91.4 billion, in the country. The rest of American spending in Afghanistan during this time period was dedicated to development programs. This ratio is the inverse of America’s global military to economic aid ratio, where only 30% of American foreign aid is spent on the military. The greater emphasis on military aid could be explained by the fact that Afghanistan was in a unique position with the lurking presence of the Taliban posing a more existential threat than those that other countries in the region faced. However, Afghanistan in 2001 also had to contend with significant challenges as a developing country, with just 800 children enrolled in schools and a healthcare system in shambles. It desperately needed economic and humanitarian assistance, and the failure to provide that made it easier for the Taliban to regain its foothold in the country.
The inadequacy of development assistance goes beyond a lack of monetary resources for development to a structural inability to effectively pursue developmental priorities. In 2011, according to the former U.S.A.I.D. acting deputy administrator James Kunder, the United States employed one thousand Department of Defense employees for every U.S.A.I.D. employee globally. Today, U.S.A.I.D. employs around 9,000 individuals, including 6,000 foreign nationals; in contrast, the Department of Defense is America’s largest government agency, employing over 2.7 million people, including the U.S. military. This imbalance in human capital essentially guaranteed that the military would play a larger role in American foreign policy than civilian departments. Even Defense Department leaders recognized the problems with this allocation of resources, with former Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and other uniformed commanders warning the 112th Congress of the negative consequences of cutting U.S.A.I.D. and State Department funding. The resource scarcity of civilian government departments, up to and including the State Department, led to a misallocation of roles and forced program developers to think in the short-term.
Due to the lack of civilian capacity, development programs and responsibilities that would be best undertaken by civilian actors were instead undertaken by the U.S. military, which has more resources. Development and government components of Village Stability Operations were initially undertaken by development professionals from the U.S. embassy in Afghanistan, but when the U.S. embassy “ran out” they were replaced by military members. Generals, rather than career development officials, were given significant power to determine the course of development projects. For example, generals deployed soldiers as aid workers as part of Provincial Reconstruction Teams (P.R.T.s), which were designed to increase Afghan support for American reconstruction efforts and for the government in Kabul. These teams were funded by U.S.A.I.D. and the U.K. Department for International Development and were involved in various development projects, such as building schools, digging wells, and constructing bridges. However, because P.R.T.s were military projects, team members lacked the neutrality of aid workers. In some areas, the presence of foreign troops did more to attract insurgent attention than to develop the region, and they often lacked the expertise to undertake development programs effectively. Furthermore, because generals took a leading role in Afghanistan, security concerns often took precedence over recovery projects, hindering the progress of vital investment and development. Around 80% of U.S.A.I.D. development funding went towards efforts that were undertaken in the south and east of Afghanistan, the most unstable parts of the country. As a result of the focus on security concerns, development needs were left unfulfilled, and the Taliban as well as other insurgent groups were able to restart operations, expanding the conflict rather than curbing it.
A Short-Term Focus
Scarcity and inconsistency of resources on the American civilian side also reduced the effectiveness of development programs run through U.S.A.I.D. and the State Department by inhibiting the ability to plan long-term development programs and produce a meaningful end goal. In Afghanistan particularly, donor contributions from foreign countries and organizations could be unpredictable, preventing long-term strategic thinking about how to best implement aid programs. One-year Congressional funding cycles also made it more difficult for aid agencies to initiate long-term development programs, instead focusing on short- and medium-term projects. Since at least 2011, American officials have been aware that there was a problematic lack of long-term development projects in the American approach to Afghanistan, but there has been no significant change in America’s short-term mindset. One example lies in the implementation of U.S.A.I.D.’s Stability in Key Areas programs, which ran from 2010 to 2015. Despite a 2010 pledge to work through the Afghan government—rather than simply consulting with it—pressure to demonstrate immediate progress resulted in U.S.A.I.D. frequently ignoring the advice of the Afghan government, taking shortcuts, and ultimately undermining the goal of government capacity- and legitimacy-building in Afghanistan.
The lack of long-term strategy is partly attributable to a shrinking political will and lack of enthusiasm from the American public. A significant amount of U.S. aid to Afghanistan was undertaken with the goal of producing immediate results to demonstrate progress to the American public and the Afghan people, rather than because it would be the most effective path forward. One clear trend that demonstrates this objective is the emphasis on off-budget projects—or projects that are run by outside actors—over on-budget projects that are run directly through the Afghan government as part of its annual budget. Owing to the Afghan government’s low administrative capacity and corruption, on-budget projects are more difficult to run effectively.
However, they can also be significantly more sustainable because, unlike foreign donors which are less committed, the Afghan government’s priority was Afghanistan. Furthermore, because the Afghan government was able to practice running on-budget programs with donor expertise and resources, it was equipped to continue running them after the exit of the donors which initiated them. In contrast, it was more difficult for the government to continue running a program that had previously been run by other actors. On-budget programs are also often less costly than off-budget ones. As a result, some of the most effective U.S. initiatives in Afghanistan—the National Solidarity Program and the Basic Package of Health Services—were on-budget. However, because off-budget projects started out run by experienced actors, they led to results more quickly and were thus preferred by the U.S. for their immediate efficiency rather than long-term impact.
The lack of domestic American support for programming abroad is a common trend in U.S. foreign policy, but since 2001, the successive presidential administrations did not put enough effort into rallying the American public in support of increased programming in Afghanistan. Prior to the intervention in Afghanistan, President Bush and his administration were strongly against nation-building, but the situation in Afghanistan made the implementation of this practice somewhat inevitable. However, shortly after President Bush’s announcement that the United States was going to pursue development programming in Afghanistan, his administration launched the invasion of Iraq. A lack of preparation on that front embroiled the U.S. in a conflict that lasted much longer than anticipated, distracting from efforts in Afghanistan and turning it into a “forgotten war.” This not only exhausted the American public’s will to maintain a presence in the Middle East; it also drew critical resources from the Afghan recovery to the Iraq War. Even the relatively well-funded military was left understaffed. U.S. military forces in Afghanistan were forced to reduce counterinsurgency (COIN) efforts that were intended to increase public support for the Afghan government over the Taliban. To fill in the gaps, the U.S. adopted more kinetic—or actively violent—and less resource-intensive strategies to reduce the Taliban´s spheres of influence.
With the advent of the Obama Administration arrived a more overt “contempt [for] nation building” and a further reduced focus on Afghanistan. In a Lessons Learned interview with the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, former U.S. Army general David Petraeus contrasted his weekly meetings with President Bush on the war in Iraq with his monthly teleconferences with President Obama on Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Obama Administration very clearly wanted to withdraw from Afghanistan as soon as possible. Rather than pursuing conditions-based exit strategies, President Obama adopted time-based exit strategies that were the exact opposite of the advice from senior military officials.
Obama also dictated both the start and pace of the military drawdown in Afghanistan, which took place sooner than anticipated by military officials. The drawdown decision occurred despite the fact that the Taliban was gaining ground. When the Obama Administration announced that the U.S. would begin reducing its troop presence in Afghanistan in 2011, the military started spending additional money more quickly than it would have otherwise in order to accelerate the stabilization process before it lacked the resources to do so. The civilian strategy was linked to the shorter-term military approach, and civilian actors also began scrambling to solidify as many gains as they could before the bulk of the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan was removed. As a result, both troops and civilian agencies ended up focusing programming on areas too unstable for lasting success, jumping from one to another and implementing stabilization projects—the effects of which often did not last beyond the departure of troops.
The decreasing presidential commitment to Afghanistan continued into the Trump Administration. It is exemplified by President Trump acquiescing to the Taliban’s request and agreeing to exclude the Afghan government from negotiations for American withdrawal. This decision was a symbolic abandonment of Afghanistan and its interests in favor of reaching a deal. The American decision to leave the country culminated in President Biden’s full military withdrawal from the country.
The desire to avoid a lengthy commitment to Afghanistan ran through every presidential administration since the initial U.S. intervention in 2001. American executives did not put their weight behind efforts to increase long-term development aid to Afghanistan or reform the structure of the development bureaucratic agencies. Had the U.S. indicated a clear willingness to commit to Afghanistan long-term and invested more fully in development, it would have better stabilized Afghanistan—as was the objective of multiple American officials—likely with the expenditure of fewer resources and in a shorter period of time. Instead, it spent billions, if not trillions, engaged in a series of “20 one-year wars” in the country.
Most importantly, the American wish to leave Afghanistan as quickly as possible was very evident to all parties involved in the conflict. It indicated to the Taliban that if it simply bided its time until the U.S. “lost interest” in the war, it would be able to take over the country once again. As it turns out, this is exactly what happened and much more quickly than anyone had anticipated.
Throughout the situation in Afghanistan, neighboring Pakistan has been heavily criticized, for aiding the Taliban while ostensibly allied with the American and Afghan governments. However, these critiques often ignore the effects of American behavior on Pakistan’s view of its regional status. Islamabad had once been allied with the Taliban’s Afghanistan, but when the U.S. removed the Taliban from power, Pakistan switched sides. However, as the U.S. began to signal a weakening commitment towards Afghanistan, despite the latter’s inability to resist the Taliban alone, Pakistan began hedging its bets. If the U.S. left Afghanistan—which it now has—and the Taliban took it over—which it has—then Pakistan would have an enemy in one of its neighboring countries.
America’s gradual abandonment of Afghanistan had ramifications within the latter as well. As the Afghan government, at both the national and provincial levels, was unsure of the length or strength of American commitment, it was limited in its ability to plan for the future. The American stance also created a context which encouraged using corruption as a financial contingency plan in case of a U.S. departure. Afghan officials, uncertain of how long they would be able to depend on the U.S., began funneling resources for their own gain partly as a means of survival.
American rhetoric, most notably from President Biden, has blamed “corruption and malfeasance” of the Afghan government and military for the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban—but after years of inconsistent American support, it is hardly surprising that the Afghan military and government chose not to prolong the conflict simply to delay what seemed like an inevitable defeat.
Largely because of American failures, significant progress in Afghan healthcare, education, and human rights more broadly is in serious danger of being reversed, if it has not already been. While it is impossible to turn back the clock and rectify the mistakes made, it is necessary to learn from them and apply those lessons to the Middle East at large. Based on the situation in Afghanistan, the U.S. is not trapped in the Middle East because it has overcommitted itself to external actors; it is trapped because it has refused to commit to a long-term strategy in the region. Instead, it has kept one foot in and the other out, creating changes but lacking follow through.
As such, the U.S. should not succumb to domestic calls to fully exit the region. Rather, it should underscore its commitment to the Middle East. However, it does need to fundamentally transform its approach to the region. The U.S. has tried for decades to achieve regional stability by prioritizing its military toolkit, including the provision of military aid and reluctant deployment of its military. As demonstrated once again with the fall of Afghanistan, this strategy has been unsuccessful in improving the lives of people in the Middle East or in forwarding American priorities of counterterrorism and regional stability.
Instead, the U.S. should increase its economic and development investment in the region. To do this, it first needs to invest more fully in U.S.A.I.D., the State Department, and other civilian bureaucratic agencies. It should also develop a realistic long-term strategy for how to deal with the Middle East—one centered on economic development over military aid.
While a reduction in military aid may irritate American regional allies, several leaders in the Middle East recognize the need for socioeconomic change. In particular, they can see the reduced demand for hydrocarbons as well as the effects of climate change on their countries and acknowledge the need to diversify their economies. An offer by the U.S. to assist them in doing so would likely be appreciated. This should not be viewed as an attempt by the U.S. to impose its vision for the region; instead, this offer would be a step forward towards cooperation and mutually beneficial developmental outcomes.
One thing is certain: if the U.S. continues on its current trajectory in the Middle East, it is doomed to repeat mistakes that have already caused potentially irreparable damage, an unacceptable outcome. Maintaining current American policy would be unfair to the people of the Middle East and to American taxpayers, as well as counterproductive to the achievement of American priorities in the region.