In October 1944, with the end of World War II in sight, Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin passed a note back and forth to each other at a conference in Moscow. On the piece of paper, Churchill had assigned percentages to several Eastern European countries. Stalin amended the numbers, and Churchill agreed. The deal remained secret for nearly a decade.
The percentages on the piece of paper referred to the amount of influence that the Soviet Union and the West would wield in Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, and Greece, with the first three countries falling in the Soviet sphere, control divided evenly in Yugoslavia, and Greece staying in the Western camp. It was the first major articulation of the geopolitical “spheres of influence” that would characterize the Cold War era.
During the first post-war elections in Eastern Europe, Communist and non-Communist parties vied for power, eventually cobbling together different versions of coalition governments. Ultimately, however, the Communist parties seized control, except in Greece, where the West intervened in a civil war to help defeat leftist insurgents. By 1948, the region looked very much like the agreement that Churchill and Stalin had drawn up.
Today, the end of a much longer war appears to be approaching. The fighting in Afghanistan has lasted nearly two decades, the most protracted conflict the United States has ever endured. This war is in turn part of a much larger battle that has been variously described as “America’s endless wars,” the “war on terror,” or simply the “long war” that began in the wake of the attacks of September 11, though earlier skirmishes took place during the 1990s.
The Biden administration is currently trying to negotiate a spheres-of-influence arrangement in Afghanistan that resembles what Churchill laid out in 1944. The American-backed government in Kabul, according to this proposal, would share power with the insurgent Taliban forces as an interim step until elections can be held under a new constitution.
Such a deal would make it easier for the United States to withdraw all of its 3,500 soldiers from Afghanistan by May 1, as laid out in a peace deal signed in 2020. Even if that withdrawal goes through, however, the institutional apparatus of the larger “long war” will still be operational. U.S. forces remain in Iraq and Syria, and the Pentagon eyes the civil war in Libya with concern. In all, after drawdowns in Afghanistan and Iraq, about 50,000 U.S. troops are stationed in the greater Middle East, with 7,000 mostly naval personnel in Bahrain, 13,000 soldiers in Kuwait and a roughly equal number in Qatar, 5,000 in the UAE, and several thousand in Saudi Arabia. U.S. Special Forces are also scattered across Africa, while the United States is still conducting air operations throughout the region.
But, as in 1944, the preliminary discussion of a power-sharing arrangement in Afghanistan suggests that the active phase of the “long war” is coming to an end. The specific U.S. adversaries—al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, and various smaller global actors—have more or less been defeated. Local groups that have battled U.S. forces, like the Taliban, remain powerful, as do adversarial governments like Bashar al-Assad’s in Syria, but they don’t pose a threat to the U.S. homeland. Larger geopolitical rivalries, with Russia and Iran in particular, continue to shape the conflicts in the region, but the United States has already established an uneven pattern of engagement and containment with these actors.
If history is to be replayed, the United States will wind down direct combat in favor of a tense cold war and intermittent “out-of-area” operations. The end of this “long war” against the architects of the September 11 attacks and their supporters is long overdue. The Biden administration is eager to focus on “building back better” at home, enjoy a post-war economic expansion, and beef up the U.S. capacity to challenge China and, to a lesser extent, Russia. The administration is reassessing its military capabilities to reflect these priorities.
All of this begs the question: will it be possible to avoid repeating the 1945 scenario by ending the “long war” and not replacing it with a cold war?
After promising to end the forever wars during the 2020 election campaign, Joe Biden is eager to enjoy his own “mission accomplished” moment in Afghanistan. But that pledge comes with a couple asterisks.
For one, Biden would like to maintain a “counter-terrorism” force in Afghanistan with the permission of the Taliban. Such an agreement would parallel the arrangement in Iraq, where the government allows around 2,500 U.S. troops to focus on suppressing any remnants of the Islamic State (as well as reining in Iran-backed paramilitaries). Second, Biden has in the past broached the possibility of moving U.S. military bases from Afghanistan to Pakistan where they would continue to serve their counter-terrorism function. It’s not at all clear whether the Taliban or Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan would be enthusiastic about these options.
At the moment, the United States is paying a relatively low price for its continued presence in Afghanistan. After last year’s peace deal, there haven’t been any U.S. combat deaths in the country, which means that Afghanistan is basically absent from the hearts and minds of Americans. The U.S. foreign policy community would like to preserve that status quo as long as possible, particularly given the post-withdrawal prospects of “ethnic cleansing, mass slaughter and the ultimate dismemberment of the country,” as Madiha Afzal and Michael O’Hanlon of Brookings have written. Similar arguments were made around the proposed withdrawal of the bulk of U.S. troops from Iraq, and yet those worst-case scenarios haven’t come to pass.
American intelligence agencies have told the Biden administration that if U.S. troops leave before a power-sharing settlement is reached between the Taliban and the Afghan government, the country could fall largely under the control of the Taliban within two or three years after the withdrawal of international forces. That could potentially open the door for Al Qaeda to rebuild its strength within the country, according to American officials.
It doesn’t take an intelligence agency to predict that the Taliban will play a major role in any future Afghanistan, with or without a power-sharing settlement. The Taliban controls about 20 percent of the country with as much as 85,000 full-time soldiers (though the areas under Taliban control are relatively underpopulated). At the same time, the insurgents are active over a much larger stretch—as much as 70 percent of the country—and are putting pressure on a number of key cities including Kunduz in the north and Kandahar in the south.
In other words, there’s a good possibility that regardless of power-sharing arrangements, the Taliban will simply take over the country, much as the Communists did throughout Eastern Europe in the late 1940s. Given the record of the Taliban’s last sojourn in power, the prospect of a reestablishment of their rule is very sobering.
But the United States has failed in two decades to defeat the Taliban with the full force of its military. Keeping a few thousand soldiers in the country is not going to change the balance of power on the ground. “The hawks argue that to leave Afghanistan is simply unthinkable until someday when they have finished winning the war,” writes Scott Horton in his new book Enough Already: Time to End the War on Terrorism. “But they lost the war more than a decade ago, and no one who protested against Trump’s drawdown had a single coherent thing to say about how staying there is supposed to somehow change the reality of Taliban power in that country.”
Won’t Afghanistan again become a safe haven for international terrorists once the U.S. troops withdraw along with their NATO partners? For all their immersion in Islamic religion and culture, the Taliban are Pashtun nationalists interested above all in kicking out the foreigners. They’re not big fans of the Islamic State, but they do maintain a close relationship at the moment with the 200-250 al-Qaeda militants in the country. Take NATO out of the equation, however, and that relationship will likely fray at the seams, particularly if international recognition, access to the global economy, and the support of powerful neighbors like Russia and Iran depend on a verifiable divorce.
When he proposed the two spheres of influence, Churchill was not relying on the good will of the Soviet state. The British leader hated Stalin and Communism. He was taking a clear-eyed look at the balance of power at the time and striking what he thought was the best deal he could, even if that meant “losing” most of Eastern Europe. A power-sharing arrangement with the Taliban that “loses” Afghanistan is comparably pragmatic.
But will it be accompanied by other, equally pragmatic policies to bring the long war to an end?
The rest of the war
The “endless wars” are obviously not just being fought by the 3,500 troops in Afghanistan and 2,500 soldiers in Iraq. As the Bush administration transitioned to the Obama era and war fatigue began to set in, the United States shifted its focus from ground operations to an air war.
In Afghanistan for instance, as the number of troops declined from a high of 100,000 in 2011, the number of airstrikes steadily increased, with a peak in terms of bombs dropped in 2018 and 2019 and a consequent rise in casualties. “The number of civilians killed by international airstrikes increased about 330 percent from 2016, the last full year of the Obama Administration, to 2019, the most recent year for which there is complete data from the United Nations,” reports Neta Crawford of the Costs of War project.
Throughout the greater Middle East, the United States has launched in excess of 14,000 drone strikes, which have killed as many as 16,000 people, including several hundred children.
Since taking office, as I note in my recent study of Biden’s take on multilateralism, the Biden administration has launched two airstrikes, one against Iranian targets in Syria on February 25 and the other in Iraq on February 9 against the Islamic State. The Syrian attack in particular has prompted a bipartisan effort in Congress to repeal the Authorizations for the Use of Military Force (passed in 1991 and 2002) in order to narrow the presidential ability to launch future airstrikes.
Meanwhile, the administration has yet to report any drone strikes. This is in marked contrast to the strikes that Obama and Trump ordered almost immediately upon taking office as well as the escalation in attacks that took place in Trump’s final months. In one of its first orders, the administration issued a temporary halt to any drone strikes outside of combat areas such as Afghanistan and Syria. As Charli Carpenter, an expert in the laws of war, points out:
Essentially what Biden is doing is he’s moving the barometer back to where it was before Trump devolved authority for drone strikes away from the executive branch and into the hands of commanders. What that means is that anytime a drone strike is envisioned, it needs to be approved by the White House. There’s going to be a much higher level of oversight and much more concern over the legal nuances of each strike. It will just make drones harder to use, and you can imagine the weaponized drones will only be used in the most extreme cases.
In addition to initiating a review of drone strikes, the administration has launched a probe into Special Forces operations to ascertain whether they have adhered to the Pentagon’s “law of war” requirements.
In effect, the Biden administration is applying greater oversight across the range of military operations to bring them into closer compliance with international rules and regulations. Such oversight, however, does not imply the end of the endless wars.
For that to happen, the United States would have to dramatically shrink its global military footprint, the constellation of U.S. bases around the world that serve as the launching pad for myriad operations. About 220,000 military and civilian personnel operate in more than 150 countries and over 800 overseas military bases. A significant chunk of the Pentagon’s $700 billion-plus budget goes toward maintaining this immense archipelago of force.
In early February, the Biden administration also announced a Global Posture Review to assess the U.S. footprint. Such a review is much needed.
After all, did this massive apparatus save a single one of the more than half a million Americans who have died from COVID-19? Is the Pentagon protecting the United States from climate change (or merely contributing to the problem with its own carbon emissions and its protection of overseas fossil fuel production and distribution)? And all that “forward-based defense” has done absolutely nothing to safeguard U.S. infrastructure from cyberattacks like the SolarWinds hack (that, by the way, gained access to the emails of Trump’s cybersecurity team at the Department of Homeland Security!).
For the time being, the architects of the Global Posture Review are thinking primarily of refocusing “strategic capabilities” against China in the Far East and Russia in the Arctic. But that just replaces one set of threats with another, which will adjust the footprint without actually reducing it.
So, let’s remember that the 3,500 American troops in Afghanistan are just the tip of the iceberg. For the United States to avoid the fate of the Titanic—also famous at one time for being immense and impregnable—it had better address the rest of the icy hazard of war.
John Feffer is an author and director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies. He has been an Open Society Foundation Fellow and a PanTech fellow in Korean Studies at Stanford University. He has also worked as an international affairs representative in Eastern Europe and East Asia for the American Friends Service Committee.
U.S. Marine Corps Gen. Joseph F. Dunford, Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, meets Afghan Gen. Wali Ahmadzia, 215th Afghan National Army Maiwand Corps Commander, after visiting Train, Advise, Assist Command -Southwest (TAAC-SW) in Helmand province, Afghanistan, 28 June, 2017. (DoD Photo by U.S. Army Sgt. James K. McCann)
MUNICH, GERMANY – The Munich Security Conference came to an end today but not before EU leaders warned that international “winds” might be blowing against the West on the issue of Israel’s war in Gaza
While the international meeting this weekend entertained manifold topics — from the role of the Global South to the importance of AI and food security — the Ukraine war dominated the conference, with Gaza coming in second at a considerable distance.
But the focus on Israel’s military operations grew more intense as the confab drew to a close, between yesterday afternoon and Sunday morning. In the press center, for example, the current situation in Gaza vied for attention with the death of Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s speech on Saturday.
Indeed, Rafah was an often-repeated word Sunday in the Bavarian capital. The day before in a televised news conference, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that “total victory” against Hamas would require an offensive against Rafah once people living there evacuate to safe areas. It is difficult to see how the concept of a “safe area” can apply to any place in the Gaza Strip today. At least 28,985 people have been killed and 68,883 injured (mostly civilians) in the Gaza Strip since October 7, when 1,200 Israelis were killed and over 250 hostages taken during a Hamas attack against Israel. In a side event Sunday organized by the Consulate General of Israel in Munich, the press was shown a video, about 10 minutes long, documenting Hamas atrocities on October 7.
According to the United Nations, over 75% of the Gazan population has been displaced, many multiple times. There is also a severe lack of food, medicine, and other essential items because of Israel’s decision to let only a trickle of the aid trucks into Gaza needed to maintain basic conditions of life.
Addressing the audience in Munich, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell stated that peace in the Middle East requires “a prospect for the Palestinian people” and that “the security of Israel will not be ensured just by military means.”
In a reference to the war in Gaza, he noted that “Russia is taking good advantage of our mistakes. The blame about double standards is something that we need to address and not only with nice words. It is clear that the wind is blowing against the West.”
Borrell appears to share a worry openly expressed by some of the European leaders — such as Spanish president Pedro Sánchez and Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar — who have been even more critical of Israel. The concern is that Europe’s failure to rein in Israel will undermine global support for Ukraine and discredit the European discourse on the importance of international law.
Borrell, in sharp contrast with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, has represented the most vocal position within the EU on the growing death toll and humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza after October 7. Earlier this week, the EU top diplomat replied to Biden’s recent description of Israel’s military conduct in Gaza as being “over the top.” Borrell noted that "if you believe that too many people are being killed, maybe you should provide less arms in order to prevent so many people being killed."
Borrell has long supported a ceasefire but any EU decision on the matter requires unanimity, and countries like Germany, Austria, and Hungary are not on board.
American ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield said yesterday that the U.S. will veto an Algerian proposal for a ceasefire in Gaza to be taken up at the UN Security Council on Tuesday. According to Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. is working hard for “a sustainable resolution of the Gaza conflict,” and the Algerian resolution would endanger this.
In an oft-repeated dynamic over the last months, the U.S. is basically asking the international community to trust that Washington’s diplomatic pressure will force Netanyahu to change course. Such an approach has failed once and again, and there is no clear reason to believe this time will be different.
Yesterday afternoon, Qatar’s Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani noted that the efforts to reach an agreement between Israel and Hamas have been dominated by a pattern that “is not really very promising.”
Part of the U.S. approach to the current conflict has also been to demand that the Palestinian Authority (PA) reforms itself. Washington hopes the PA can govern the Gaza Strip after the war ends, but Netanyahu has been adamant it does not envisage any role for the PA in the Gaza Strip in the future.
The Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh was in Munich on Sunday, remarking in an interview that the PA — which has grown even more unpopular in the West Bank after October 7 — is already working on introducing reforms. Shtayyeh said that the recent insistence on the topic only seeks to divert attention from the Israeli military operation in Gaza, however.
In his view, Netanyahu’s interest today is “to keep the war going” and argued that “Netanyahu’s war is going to continue until the end of the year.” The Palestinian leader was supposed to be present at a press briefing around midday, but the event was canceled on short notice due to “scheduling reasons.”
In a panel with his Spanish and Canadian counterparts, Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi was one of the last Arab leaders to speak in Munich. He used the opportunity to note that “Israel cannot have security unless Palestinians have security.”
This afternoon, the Munich city center was returning to its normal state after an intense weekend of both open and closed-door meetings featuring top leaders from Europe and beyond. As security barriers were being removed and the 5,000 police officers deployed for the event, many of them from other parts of Germany, returned home, it wasn’t hard to note that beyond all the talk, the world’s thorniest problems, including two major conflicts, are left unresolved.
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Volodymyr Zelensky speaks at the Munich Security Conference, Feb. 17, 2024. (David Hecker/MSC)
MUNICH, GERMANY — If U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris dominated the first day of the Munich Security Conference with her remarks, today it was German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s turn.
It was not only Zelensky who understandably devoted his whole speech to the Ukraine War but also Scholz, too. The German Chancellor, while boasting that his country will devote 2% of its GDP to defense expenditures this year, remarked that “we Europeans need to do much more for our security now and in the future.”
In a brief but clear reference to Trump’s recent statements on NATO, Scholz said, "any relativization of NATO’s mutual defense guarantee will only benefit those who, just like Putin, want to weaken us.” On the guns and butter debate, which is particularly relevant in Germany due to negligible economic growth, Scholz acknowledged that critical voices are saying, “should not we be using the money for other things?” But he chose not to engage in this debate, noting instead that “Moscow is fanning the flames of such doubts with targeted disinformation campaigns and with propaganda on social media.”
The Russian capture of the city represents the most significant defeat for Ukraine since the failure of its counter-offensive last year. On the loss of Avdiivka, Zelensky said that Ukraine had lost one soldier for every seven soldiers who have died on the Russian side. This, however, is difficult to reconcile with the reports about the rushed Ukrainian retreat, with a Ukrainian soldier explaining that “the road to Avdiivka is littered with our corpses.”
Throughout his speech, Zelensky repeatedly referred to the importance of defending what he called the “rules-based world order” by defeating Russia. If there was one take-away that Zelensky wanted impressed on this audience: “Please do not ask Ukraine when the war will end. Ask yourself why is Putin still able to continue it.”
He also seemed to suggest that it was not a lack of available weapons and artillery but a willingness to give them over to Ukraine. “Dear friends, unfortunately keeping Ukraine in the artificial deficit of weapons, particularly in deficit of artillery and long-range capabilities, allows Putin to adapt to the current intensity of the war,” Zelenskyy said. “The self-weakening of democracy over time undermines our joint results.”
The future of NATO was one of the main topics of the day. European leaders were in agreement that Europe needs to spend more on defense, and occasionally appeared to compete with each other on who has spent the most on weapons delivered to Ukraine or in their national defense budgets.
With NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in attendance, one of the panels featured two of the most talked-about names to replace the Norwegian politician in the 75th-anniversary summit in Washington in July: EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and caretaker Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte. According to a report by the German newspaper Welt am Sonntag, President Joseph Biden and his Secretary of State Anthony Blinken favor the German leader, but in Paris, London, and Berlin, the Dutch politician is preferred.
The participation of the Netherlands in the initial U.S.-UK joint strikes against Houthi positions in Yemen on Jan. 11 was read in some quarters as a sign of Rutte’s ambitions. The Netherlands was the only EU country to join these initial attacks.
A G7 meeting of foreign ministers also took place Saturday on the sidelines of the conference. In a press briefing that followed, Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani — who currently presides the G7 — reiterated the group’s support for Ukraine. The current situation in the Red Sea, as is often the case in the West, was presented by Tajani as a topic divorced from the Gaza Strip. The Houthis started their campaign against ships in the Red Sea after the beginning of the war in Gaza, claiming they want to force an end to the conflict.
There is no certainty that the end of the war in Gaza would put an end to Houthi attacks, but presenting the situation in the Red Sea as being nothing but a threat to freedom of trade is considered by experts to be a a myopic approach.
Nevertheless, Italy will be in command of the new EU naval mission ASPIDES, to be deployed soon in the Red Sea. The mission is expected to be approved by the next meeting of EU foreign affairs ministers on Monday. When asked whether he could ensure that ASPIDES would remain a defensive mission, the Italian Foreign Minister said ASPIDES aims at defending merchant ships and that if drones or missiles are launched, they will be shot down, but no attacks will be conducted.
Marc Martorell Junyent is in Munich, covering the conference for Responsible Statecraft this weekend. This story is developing and is being updated.
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Vice President Kamala Harris at the Munich Security Conference, Feb. 16, 2024. (Lukas Barth-Tuttas/MSC)
MUNICH, GERMANY – The 60th year of the Munich Security Conference opened today with much of the early energy surrounding remarks by Vice President Kamala Harris.
The vice president noted that it was nearly two years since the beginning of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022. She said that when Putin unleashed his troops along different fronts in February 2022, “many thought Kyiv would fall within a day.” It is also true, as she pointed out, that “Ukraine has regained more than half the territory Russia occupied at the start of the conflict.” (Russia held about 7% before the invasion, 27% right after, and about 18% today.)
However, by choosing the first months of the war as the starting point of her speech, Harris sought to avoid the obvious. Namely, that in the year that has gone by since her last visit to Munich, the Ukrainian army has been losing ground. Yet, her remarks regarding Ukraine today did not differ much from her speech in 2023.
Harris seemed dedicated to keeping to the administration’s recent script, which is warning against heralding in a new era of “isolationism,” referring to President Biden's likely presidential election opponent, Donald Trump.
As president Biden and I have made clear over the past three years, we are committed to pursue global engagement, to uphold international rules and norms, to defend democratic values at home and abroad, and to work with our allies and partners in pursuit of shared goals.
As I travel throughout my country and the world, it is clear to me: this approach makes America strong. And it keeps Americans safe.
Interestingly, the U.S. has been accused of thwarting "international rules and norms" in its unconditional support of Israel’s war on Gaza, which has killed upwards of 29,000 Palestinians, mostly of them civilians, since Hamas’s Oct. 7 invasion of Israel and hostage-taking. Christoph Heusgen, the chairman of the Munich Security Conference, asked Harris whether a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine was achievable. Harris answered that “the short answer is yes… but we must then put the discussion in context, starting with October 7.” Not 1948, not 1967, but October 7, 2023.
Her prepared remarks on the situation were very brief, overall, saying:
In the Middle East, we are working to end the conflict that Hamas triggered on October 7th as soon as possible and ensure it ends in a way where Israel is secure, hostages are released, the humanitarian crisis is resolved, Hamas does not control Gaza, and Palestinians can enjoy their right to security, dignity, freedom, and self-determination.
This work — while we also work to counter aggression from Iran and its proxies, prevent regional escalation, and promote regional integration.
October 7 was the topic of a conference side event hosted by Brigadier-General Gal Hirsch, Israel’s Coordinator for Hostages and Missing. In his opening speech, he called for a Global War on Kidnapping inspired by George Bush’s War on Terror. Hirsch was short on the specifics, and Israeli foreign minister Israel Katz did not develop the concept further when he followed Hirsch at the podium. During the event, several hostages released during the short ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in November 2023 described their harrowing experiences in captivity. Relatives of the remaining hostages accompanied them.
Meanwhile, in a morning event, German Finance Minister Christian Lindner and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis discussed how to increase defense spending in a time of economic stagnation. Mitsotakis, whose country has always spent significantly more than the expected 2% of the GDP required by NATO, stated that defense policy cannot be done on a budget. Lindner, meanwhile, remarked that Germany is on the way to spending 2% of its GDP on defense. Economic prosperity, the German Liberal minister noted, should avoid tradeoffs between social and defense policies. This is certainly a difficult equation to square since the German government just announced it was reviewing its forecast for GDP growth in 2024 from 1.3% down to 0.2%.
Marc Martorell Junyent is in Munich, covering the conference for Responsible Statecraft this weekend. This story is developing.