Earlier this year, when President Biden announced his intention “to end this forever war,” he was referring specifically to Afghanistan. The events of August fulfilled Biden’s wish, even if not quite as neatly as he might have hoped. Twenty years after it began, the Afghanistan War concluded with an unambiguous victory for America’s adversary. The Taliban fought to expel all foreign occupiers; they accomplished their aim. By comparison, the United States came up empty-handed.
Yet despite this setback, little evidence exists to suggest that the larger conflict of which Afghanistan was a part will end anytime soon. Indeed, hardly had the Taliban regained power in Kabul than the Pentagon was pivoting back to the forever war’s point of origin.
Recall that, in the hierarchy of substantive U.S. interests, impoverished and landlocked Afghanistan has never ranked especially high. By comparison, for decades now, policymakers in Washington have obsessed about the oil-rich Persian Gulf.
On that score, the forever war actually dates not from September 2001 but from January 1980. That’s when President Jimmy Carter used his State of the Union Address to issue a manifesto of sorts. Henceforth, Carter announced, any “attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America.” Lest anyone misunderstand his meaning, he vowed that “such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.”
President Carter’s dictum stands in relation to the forever war as Adam’s first taste of forbidden fruit does to the fallen state of humankind: it is the Original Sin.
This Carter Doctrine, as it came to be known, derived from two crucial assumptions: first, that the American way of life depended on ensuring unfettered access to Persian Gulf oil; second, that the best way to ensure that access was through the concerted application of U.S. military power.
Even today, regardless of the serial disappointments and complications encountered since Carter drew his line in the sand, the prospect of fighting in or within some proximity of the Persian Gulf remains a centerpiece of U.S. grand strategy. While the identity of the presumed enemy has changed over time, the Carter Doctrine itself remains firmly in place.
In 1980, the “outside force” to which Carter alluded was the Soviet Union. A decade later, as the USSR disintegrated, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq emerged as the primary threat. Today, with Hussein long gone and after a protracted interval of conflict against various tribes, sects, militias, and jihadist groups, the Islamic Republic of Iran provides a continuing rationale for the Carter Doctrine.