Full Reflection Post


The U.S. Role In and Foreign Policy Debate On Afghanistan

Dipali Mukhopadhyay

The challenges:

  • Present recommendations on the U.S. role in Afghanistan along with empirically informed enumeration of various potential decisions and outcomes
  • Bring a different range of voices and perspectives into the U.S. foreign policy debate on Afghanistan
  • Grapple with what to do with knowledge production that is unused in policy creation

The background and policy setting:

Dipali Mukhopadhyay has been a policy-oriented scholar since early in the Afghan war and has worked on the war throughout its duration and her entire career. Her work has centered in peace and security issues, while being embedded in policy engagement, working directly on policy issues, writing for policy audiences with which she is connected, and working in close collaboration with policy makers.

Mukhopadhyay was hired by the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP) as a Senior Expert on the process of peace in Afghanistan. One of her roles was to work as one of two drafters in an Afghan study group commissioned by Congress to review the entire U.S.-Afghanistan war and to consider the next chapter of U.S.-Afghan relations. She began this position in 2020, with the idea that the Special Report she and her colleagues drafted would be handed off to the President, either Trump or Biden, post-election.[1] Mukhopadhyay felt that the process and the writing prior to the election really worked. But she saw that the product she and the study group produced had almost no impact on the President’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan in the summer of 2021, which he made individually and brooking little dissent from his foreign policy team.

The engagement:

The Afghan study group was composed of seasoned Western practitioners and writers on Afghanistan and the US. Almost everyone on the USIP team had pre- 9/11 experience on the ground and/or with actors in Afghanistan. The study group routinely engaged with people in the Department of Defense, Department of State, and on the Hill, with some of the most important relationships being committee staffers. The USIP study group team routinely briefed first the Secretary of State’s Special Envoy as well as some key players in the president’s circle.

The study group was commissioned by Lindsey Graham and Patrick Leahy, who wanted to do a major review for the next administration, given that there was a growing sense that a major change – either an end or a new chapter in the war - was coming. The commissioners saw it as a time to reflect on various options including withdrawal of troops, doubling down on efforts, aid, etc. The report read like a syllabus, in the sense that all the information was there, but a student must do the reading.

Mukhopadhyay was brought on to the team at USIP because of a growing sense in Washington that the full range of research and knowledge production on Afghanistan should have a more prominent role in policymaking. In the name of “action-oriented research” USIP members wanted a researcher to think about how research itself could shape the peace process between the US and the Taliban, and the Afghan government and the Taliban.

Mukhopadhyay’s job was to think about what type of research was useful to those involved in policy and decision-making. Specifically, her role was to connect top-down Washington D.C. approaches with bottom-up Kabul-centered perspectives. She saw the fact that she was hired as representative of USIP as valuing the expertise of someone with a long-term commitment to scholarly research on Afghanistan. Her main mission was to center Afghan voices, opinions, and knowledge that she, as an academic, had encountered, yet saw had not been sufficiently on the radar of U.S. decision-makers. She had a very different set of friends, interlocutors, and collaborators who she could give space to. In this setting, she found that both USIP and the Afghan study group engaged in thoughtful, reflective conversations that problematized why the same mistakes continued to be made in the war in Afghanistan. The experience was more diverse, representative, sustained, and iterative than her previous perceptions of the policy space had been.

What were the implications of the engagement?

This form of policy engagement was shaped by uncertainty: President Trump’s governance was filled with uncertainty, and it was unclear who would be leading the US in the lead up to the November election. Together these factors allowed Mukhopadhyay and the Afghan study group to be very explicit about uncertainty and offer multiple scenarios to whomever the President might be. The study group made a recommendation to negotiate a new withdrawal date (beyond May 2021) and to employ the existing US military presence to “help create conditions for an acceptable peace agreement.”,The report also offered an analysis of the whole array of options the next administration would have. The group acknowledged that its members would not be the decision-makers and would not know the context in which decisions would be made; they saw their role as providing empirically grounded options with implications.

The report received enormous attention. The study group was co-chaired by Chairman Dunford of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Senator Ayotte from New Hampshire, and former President Lindborg of USIP. The report forced a conversation and primed the elite American foreign policy audience to react to what would follow in Afghanistan. Even though it did not seem to impact the President’s decision, it did play a role in informing the American public, especially in articulating that the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan did not have to play out the way it did. The report emphasized, with evidence, that there were different ways of thinking about equities and responsibilities in this policy space.

The report, in a sense, set the stage for informed elites to hold the Biden administration accountable for its Afghanistan policy going forward, after the disastrous withdrawal of troops occurred. Long after August 2021, it remained in the public consciousness. Journalists, veterans, and the public are aware of how many careers, including their own, had been involved in this space and they exerted external pressure on the Presidency. Though there is an epistemic closure in terms of policymaking for Afghanistan, there has been an epistemic opening in the public.

Mukhopadhyay continues to work with scholars in the region, write on Afghanistan, and see openings for policy-relevant scholarship in the region. She stays engaged for the possibility that future windows of opportunity will open. She works with many kinds of decision-makers in Afghanistan, including scholars, practitioners, and journalists. By focusing her recent efforts on their relocation and giving them a space, she also sees this as a means of opening policy space and policy processes.

Mukhopadhyay reflected that the outcome of U.S. withdrawal was both predictable and predicted. Policymakers could and should have foreseen this outcome using academic knowledge, because in instances like this, uncertainty can be modeled. Mukhopadhyay demonstrated this in an earlier article using the stag hunt to illustrate that if the US, as one player within the band of hunters, were to defect, others would too[2]. This later came to pass in the political cascade that followed the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan.

[1] Farahi, K. and Guggenheim S. “Special Report No. 487” in United Stated Institute of Peace (November 2020).

[2] Mukhopadhyay, D. “The Afghan Stag Hunt” in Lawfare (25 February 2019).

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