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The US and her allies have invested heavily in blood and treasure in Afghanistan for 2 decades. Current trajectories indicate that the entire country will soon fall to the Taliban. I have heard no talk in the mainstream media about a territorial acquisition option and it seems to me that several benefits could result if such an acquisition were handled properly.

Some eventual upsides with hard work could include

  1. Basic human rights guaranteed to the population, especially for women and girls
  2. The more general promotion of democracy and freedoms in that territory
  3. Permanent military bases and staging grounds for the US and her allies
  4. Denying terrorists a significant foot hold
  5. Known natural resources such as barite, chromite, copper and gold
  6. Natural resources yet to be discovered
  7. A reduction in the illicit opium trade
  8. A trainable workforce that could significantly populate low-skill factories (in Afghanistan) thereby reducing dependence upon China and other (potentially hostile) countries for manufactured goods

If the US and Afghan governments were to broker such a deal, what would the political and other downsides be of securing Afghanistan as a territory ?

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    I think there are two wrong assumptions in this question: (1) heavy investment in a war doesn't give any special right about annexing the occupied country (if anything it shows a lack of thinking before deciding to invade). (2) The support for this option in the Afghan population would probably be even less than the support for Taliban: not everybody dreams about belonging to the US. This option looks ike doubling down on a terrible idea: organizations such as Al Qaeda or IS use the US neo-colonialism in the Middle East as an argument to recruit, and this would help them recruit a lot more.
    – Erwan
    Aug 14 at 17:23
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    This Q. is a sunk cost fallacy. A man who loses his savings at a casino blackjack table would be unwise to remortgage his house in hopes of winning his savings back.
    – agc
    Aug 27 at 1:36
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    The age of Western countries establishing colonies around the world ended about 70 years ago. Why on earth would anyone believe that such a move would be any different to France attempting to re-take Indo-China, or Britain returning to the sub-continent. Apart from such an enterprise being seen as such, and met with incredulity and vehement opposition around the world, it would surely make any future American attempts at free-world leadership a laughing stock, with the Russians and Chinese depicting it as a direct return to nineteenth-century impreialism.
    – WS2
    Aug 27 at 8:08
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    And how would it meet the widespread public opposition in America to "endless foreign wars"? Can you honestly believe that the US, after a failed twenty years of attempting to bring "democracy" to Afghanistan, would stand any better chance by returning and telling the Afghans that their country was now part of the United States? It is seldom that I ever downvote a question, but this one presents such a naive proposal, which implies such a poor grasp of modern history that I feel bound to do so.
    – WS2
    Aug 27 at 8:23
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No, it isn't.

Whatever the supposed benefits, this flies totally against the international norms of not acquiring territory through military means. The "military means" are rather obvious: US troops would have to be redeployed to restabilize the situation on the ground.

If this was allowed for this "good reason", all sorts of "good reasons" would pop up all around the world. Taiwan, Crimea, etc....

If the US and Afghan governments were to broker such a deal

The existing Afghanistan government lacks a clear mandate to do such a thing and it would just as questionable as if the present Crimean government was to "broker a deal to transfer to Russia".

To effect such a transfer credibly, a government would have had to be elected in clean elections by a plurality of the citizen of its country and would have to enjoy widespread trust by those citizens. #1 is somewhat debatable, #2 is really not where Afghanistan's government seems to be at, regardless of how terrible a Taliban takeover is likely to end up.

Second, it is far from a given that US domestic sentiment would in way support this, no matter what the reasons. Trump's policy to withdraw was known in advance and so was Biden's similar policy.

Third, practicality. Afghanistan is, geographically, a land-locked country surrounded by countries not all that friendly or reliable to US interests. They could both feel threatened and have the means to cut off US access to Afghanistan by any means other than airlift.

To quote your own question:

Permanent military bases and staging grounds for the US and her allies

Fourth. Would Afghans as a whole support this? Not just "the people at risk from seeing Western withdrawal". All the other Afghans too. That is extremely doubtful. One constant seems to pop up time and again in Afghan history: they are fiercely independent and the US would be, again, an occupying power.

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    Why are you saying that I'm proposing "acquiring through military means" ? I said or implied nothing of the sort.
    – Steve
    Aug 14 at 0:11
  • "Because it would be clearly construed as such by any country except for the US". Hmmm, that is quite a sweeping statement. And how do you know this ?
    – Steve
    Aug 14 at 0:18
  • Hmmm, that sounds like another sweeping statement . . .
    – Steve
    Aug 14 at 0:20
  • Given the tragic loss of life there, I wonder if the United Nations would be sympathetic.
    – Steve
    Aug 14 at 0:23
  • @Steve now, involving the UN, that would be an entirely more appropriate question. but it was not your question. Aug 14 at 0:26
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If the US and Afghan governments were to broker such a deal, what would the political and other downsides be of securing Afghanistan as a territory?

New territory can be acquired in the following ways, from easiest to hardest:

  1. Capture of unclaimed, depopulated land. Easiest possible scenario but no longer feasible since every piece of land on Earth is directly or indirectly claimed by someone else. One example would be the French discovery of Kergulen islands.
  2. Voluntary union of two nations, fully supported by the vast majority of the population. Last happened between East and West Germany.
  3. Capture of a mostly-friendly nation via diplomatic and military pressure, without an outright war. Last happened when Sikkim joined India.
  4. Hostile occupation of a friendly part of a different nation. Here a big chunk of the parent nation hate you but a small part doesn't, so you capture them. Last happened with the unification of Russia and Crimea. Use of force is a must but peace is quickly restored.
  5. Military capture of a small, weak nation with little potential for underground resistance. Might require a bit of force but peace is easy to achieve. One example would the capture of Hawaii by US soldiers. At the time Hawaii had only 90 thousand people and only 500 locals tried to resist the invasion.
  6. Military capture and subsequent expulsion of the local population. Pretty easy to rule over empty land. Last happened during the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
  7. Military capture and subsequent ethnic cleansing of the local population. Last done by Russia in the 19th century.
  8. Capture the nation by force, then install friendly rulers in place without trying to integrate the locals into your nation. Kind of what happened during the Afghan war with the US attempting to build a democracy. Another historical example would be the colonization of India, which also failed miserably.
  9. Capture the nation by force and then destroy their culture through violent means. Currently ongoing in Tibet and Xinjiang via "re-education" camps - mostly successfully, at the cost of great human suffering.
  10. Capture the nation and the integrate the locals fully into your nation. That's what the Soviet Union tried to do (in addition to genocide) and it failed in the end.

So... what would you propose the US to do this time around? #8 failed already. #1 to #5 are not applicable as America isn't too popular in Afghanistan right now. #6 and #7 would require America to basically break down the modern world order by openly committing ethnic cleansing. #9 is likewise unlikely to be supported by US voters.

So we're left with #10, which would require many decades to complete and trillions of dollars spent on raising Afghan life quality to American standards - good luck convincing the taxpayers that a 10% "Afghanistan" tax is a deserving use of their money. Afghanistan's rare metals are currently valued at 1 trillion dollars, which is approximately how much the US spent on the war over the past 20 years. And keep in mind that this crazy plan is not guaranteed to be successful in the end, just like it wasn't for the Soviet Union. Peaceful assimilation is insanely hard to do.

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  • Exactly. It's not just that the current situation and its immediate likely evolution "sucks". It is what can be expected to work to fix it. The US can play a part, possibly, but it will have to be on a different basis than what has been done so far. There is also the very real cost, to the US, of emphasizing counterinsurgency capability at the expense of downplaying peer-opponent high-intensity warfare capability. Aug 14 at 2:22
  • @JonathanReez I never said I had an easy, cheap, safe and fast guarantee for the future. What we have done isn't and what we are doing isn't. Personally I see no "good" options at this point, only thinking about which approach has fewer downsides for the long haul. As mentioned, looking for downsides to acquisition. If you, or anyone has an approach with no downsides, I'm all ears. A hybrid between #2 and #3 with coalition and UN backing could be reasonable. We do not want another 9/11 and over the horizon actions alone will not be sufficient. Could it be time to think out of the box ?
    – Steve
    Aug 14 at 2:22
  • @Steve #2 and #3 are impossible since a large chunk of the population hates the US and Western values. Your only options are #7, #8 and #10... so realistically pulling out and letting them be is the best possible outcome. Aug 14 at 2:28
  • @JonathanReez Disagree. Few people in the US and at our allies would support wholesale ethnic cleansing. We tried and failed at #8 and #10 is too big a step not to mention how distasteful genocide is.
    – Steve
    Aug 14 at 2:33
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    @Steve I dont think that is what JR is trying to say. He's proceeding by elimination and putting forward the theory that imposing US control would have to be done in ways that you would not agree with yourself. i.e. what you want to do isn't achievable with any remotely acceptable means. except for #8 which... has failed. Aug 14 at 2:52
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If the US and Afghan governments were to broker such a deal, what would the political and other downsides be of securing Afghanistan as a territory ?

Even if everyone involved (The US, the broader international community, a majority of Afghan citizens and the Afghan government), except for the Taliban, would be in favor of this, the difficulty would be keeping Afghanistan physically secure. Making Afghanistan into an American territory doesn't solve the existence of terror groups like the Taliban.

In practice, the US would face the same challenges as it has done for the past 20 years during which its military was present in Afghanistan. Part of the US mission was to rebuild Afghanistan, but it failed.

The first step in securing Afghanistan would be to defeat the Taliban*, either militarily or diplomatically (i.e. change their mind). The latter is not compatible with making the country into a US territory because the Taliban won't accept it. Defeating the Taliban militarily has been tried for 20 years but with no success.

* The Taliban would need to be defeated because they want to impose Sharia law. That's incompatible with the US world view and the human rights benefits described in your question.

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  • There may be other downsides but I like your answer. The military challenge of defeating the Taliban would certainly still exist and it would take hard work. But we and our allies have had just a token military presence there recently. If it were declared a territory by the West that could change the psychology of the campaign; for the better.
    – Steve
    Aug 14 at 0:50
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    @Steve how many foreign military personnel do you think it would take to secure Afghanistan? And is there an end in sight; can you guarantee that the military presence won't be needed after a while? It's not like a regular war where two armies fight. The Taliban blends into the civilian population, has time and only needs infrequent successful attacks to demoralize the US. On the other hand, the security force would need to keep watch in every location all the time because they don't know when or where the next attack will be. It's asymmetric warfare.
    – JJJ
    Aug 14 at 0:57
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    I'm agreeing with you. It would take hard work and probably a generation or two. There are pros and cons in whatever decision(s) is/are made. I listed a few pros in my question and now I'm looking for a few cons.
    – Steve
    Aug 14 at 1:02
  • @JJJ it needn't be so asymmetric if the Kabul government was widely trusted and actively supported. Thing is, it seems more that the Taliban are feared, rather than the government trusted. Aug 14 at 1:14
  • The U.S. would not be in favor of this option. Both Republican and Democratic Presidents have expressed a desire to leave. The American public doesn't favor the idea either (on a bipartisan basis).
    – ohwilleke
    Aug 27 at 15:07
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Actually, I was thinking just yesterday of the (crazy?) idea, let's make Afghanistan a US territory!

After all, there are other examples of some far-off places in the Pacific region especially, for example, where we have a territorial relationship.

Here is a list of US Territories: Puerto Rico, Guam, US Virgin Islands, Northern Mariana Islands, American Samoa, Midway Atoll, Palmyra Atoll and Baker Island.

So, what are the requirements to achieve such legal status? Per a source, the opinion appears to be none, to quote:

So there have been a variety of ways in which different jurisdictions have become US territories, but the common denominator is that they all became US territories at the US’s initiative and not because anybody asked the US to become a US territory;

Note: Most of our historic non-contiguous territorial acquisitions, however, appear to be incidentally related to some strategic positioning (mostly naval in nature, like the Philippines). Afghanistan is problematically too close to Russia (think Cuban Missile Crisis in reverse), so this argument appears weak here.

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    Plus they'd get free rolls of paper towels after a hurricane.
    – agc
    Aug 27 at 1:33
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    How does this answer the question? It just restates it that it is possible in US law - which no one disputes - but it's not answering that doing this would be viable or desirable. Aug 27 at 19:15
  • OK, if there are no, at least legal obstructions, for America to declare that Afghanistan is now a US territory, this implies it can NOT (at least in one sense) be prohibited. Hence, it remains an option! I would add, if you decided, for example, to non-legally adopt a child and contributed a trillion dollars over time to support, why would you be proscribed from proceeding more formally?
    – AJKOER
    Aug 27 at 23:01
  • The question is not whether it's an option but whether it's a viable option. Viable literally means "possible," but it's usually used to denote possiblity in context: whether something will lead to a good outcome, or perhaps, in this case, whether territorial status would lead to political, economic, or social stability.
    – phoog
    Aug 28 at 23:49

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