Much more importantly, however, an answer to the question of what the U.S. endgame in Afghanistan will look like, and when it will happen, appears to have become more elusive than ever as a result of events in and around Afghanistan during the past six months. These developments have added significant new layers of tension and uncertainty to already troubled U.S. policy and operations. In particular, a new and deeper round of difficulties with Islamabad erupted following the allegedly accidental U.S. bombing of a Pakistani military camp inside Pakistan in November. And more recently, two incidents in Afghanistan—the burning of Qurans at Bagram Airbase in February and the murder spree by one or more U.S. soldiers in two villages near Kandahar on 11 March—have seriously undermined the already tattered trust between Kabul and Washington and drastically compromised the Afghan National Army (ANA), both in terms of its loyalty to its U.S.-NATO partners and trainers and its responsibility to protect the Afghan people.
The United States has six military bases in Afghanistan, and reports indicate that some of them are still being expanded while new forward operating bases (FOBs) are being constructed.
Under the circumstances, the planned withdrawal of all U.S. troops by 2014 certainly is not a done deal and, among the handlers of Obama’s re-election bid in particular, there is some concern that even this year’s partial troop withdrawal may not be doable. The United States has six military bases in Afghanistan, and reports indicate that some of them are still being expanded while new forward operating bases (FOBs) are being constructed. Discussions in Washington offer no clue as to a plan to withdraw all troops from Afghanistan in the foreseeable future or what the size of the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan might be if and when Washington does announce a final exit.
In this article, we first review what is known and not known about Washington’s possible next steps in Afghanistan. Then we look at how the various nations involved directly or indirectly in the strategic south and central Asian region view the prospect of a “final” U.S.-NATO troop withdrawal from Afghanistan.
What if …
As of this writing, no one can foresee how, or when, the Afghan imbroglio will be resolved and who will be sitting on the thorny throne in Kabul. What is certain, though, is that Washington has no clue. Washington may have in mind a group, or groups, to take over Kabul when it withdraws. But there is no indication that there is any actual connection between what Washington has in mind and the ground realities in Afghanistan. Although talk about talks to resolve the Afghan crisis fills the air, neither Washington’s talkers nor those who have their ears close to the ground listening to these talks know who is actually doing the talking, how real they are or who they really represent.
Washington not only lost a lot of money and people but also, more importantly, lost the trust of people in and around Afghanistan.
What is also certain is that a sea change has taken place in the region as a result of Washington’s insistence on pursing aggressively ignorant and incompetent policies. During the last 11 years of war, did the United States win a single friend in the region? No, it didn’t; but it surely lost a few. When the United States invaded Afghanistan, the vast majority of Afghans, the Pushtun included, supported Washington—almost 95 per cent of the population rejected the brutish Taliban rule backed from outside by Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. As a result, the invasion and overturning of the Taliban government was a cakewalk.
What followed is a seemingly endless nightmare. Aggressive ignorance mixed with colonial impulses created a heady punch that made the occupation a living hell. Washington not only lost a lot of money and people but also, more importantly, lost the trust of people in and around Afghanistan. It is quite amazing that after almost 11 years in Afghanistan battling the so-called Islamic zealots, U.S. troops could “mistakenly” burn a pile of Qurans and then, following a gap of about three weeks, U.S. soldiers could break into the homes of sleeping villagers, shoot them and their children to death and then try to burn the bodies—a sacrilege in the Islamic faith. During their long stay, American authorities either did not grasp what was needed to earn the trust and respect of the population or were driven by the age-old brutish colonial culture that pays no heed to the sensitivities of the people of the country they have occupied.
How ironic that today, on several days in any given week, Americans in Afghanistan are in lock-down for fear of the Afghans whom they wanted to “protect” from the barbaric Taliban and murderous al-Qaeda. In 2001, when the United States invaded Afghanistan, President George W. Bush’s closest ally, as Washington’s geopoliticians proudly announced at the time, was Pakistan president Pervez Musharraf. Today, Musharraf lives in exile, unable to enter the country he ruled for almost eight years, and the United States has become enemy number one to an overwhelmingly large number of Pakistanis.
Most, if not all, Afghans see the colonial and American forces as invaders and occupiers. For this reason, there will always be a question, even after U.S.-NATO troops leave the scene, as to whether or not ANA can muster the will and determination to take on those who have been identified by the foreign troops as terrorists and criminals. The events of February and March will certainly make it that much more difficult for ANA to remain steadfast in its alleged commitment to the U.S.-NATO mission; but what is indeterminable is how many of these “trained” soldiers will break from their ranks and openly oppose U.S.-NATO in the days ahead.
Under the present circumstances, Afghanistan is broken pottery. It was never well-baked pottery to begin with; but it is surely now broken.
What, then, are the strategic implications of the United States picking up and saying “I quit”? The effort to guess what the nature of a resolution to the Afghan crisis might be is something of an academic exercise. Under the present circumstances, Afghanistan is broken pottery. It was never well-baked pottery to begin with; but it is surely now broken. No matter what Washington, London, Riyadh or Islamabad agree upon or what documents they choose to sign, what will actually follow the formalities of ending the U.S.-NATO military engagement is wholly unknown. In all likelihood, the process will be messy, but they have gone through such messy processes on many previous occasions. Most importantly, the Afghans will not allow anyone else to mess with their internal affairs—not wittingly at least.
On the substantive issue is the United States’ withdrawal from Afghanistan, and whether or not such a withdrawal will be total, it is most likely that the United States will withdraw the bulk of its troops, hand over the reins of security to ANA and retreat to its six-plus-eight bases. Then Washington will do its darnedest to see that the powers that be in Kabul allow the United States to keep those bases. It is likely that Washington will have to pour buckets of money into Kabul annually to maintain such a status.
One of the principal reasons the United States would like to maintain a significant number of bases is Afghanistan’s strategic location. Notwithstanding the country’s mineral reserves, Afghanistan is located at the junction of central Asia, the Indian subcontinent and Iran. Iran was declared part of the “axis of evil” by the previous U.S. president, and Pakistan, bordering Afghanistan in the east, has become intensely hostile to the United States. While Pakistan is a nonlegal nuclear weapons nation, Iran has been accused repeatedly by the Western countries, their allies in the Arab world and Israel of harbouring a nuclear weapons program. Like the other members of the nuclear weapons club of five, the United States does not want any other nation to go nuclear and would certainly want to remain encamped in Afghanistan to keep a close tab on Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and those of Iran—if and when Tehran actually develops its own.
…Moscow is afraid, first and foremost because what the U.S. and the coalition were doing is very much in the interest of Russia, keeping the Taliban as far away as possible from Central Asia and Russia…
But central Asia is a vast region, with Russia north of it and China on its east. Both would like to have a strong presence in the nascent central Asian nations that emerged as independent countries following the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. How do the central Asian countries, including Russia, look at such a U.S. plan? What will be their reaction if the United States chooses to withdraw lock, stock and barrel?
No sighs of relief will be heard from either Russia or the central Asian nations when the U.S.-NATO troops leave Afghanistan. In a 26 October 2011 Atlantic magazine article, “Withdrawal from Afghanistan Could Kill the U.S.-Russia ‘Reset,’” Joshua Kucera pointed out: “Moscow has been publicly critical of U.S. involvement in Central Asia, calling it an encroachment on their sphere of influence, but that rhetoric hid an inconvenient secret: behind the Kremlin’s closed doors, observers here believe, Russians were glad that the U.S. was doing their dirty work. Even after the Soviet Union pulled out of Afghanistan in 1989, Moscow continued to station Russian border guards in Tajikistan and Turkmenistan and aided Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance. Nevertheless, a low-level but persistent Islamist radical insurgency bedeviled several of the Central Asian states on Russia’s southern border.”
Beyond the “Islamist radical insurgency,” which is real, Russia is also worried about the tons of heroin produced from Afghan opium that is coming into Russia and destroying hundreds and thousands of Russian youths annually. Russia is also aware that heroin coming in from Afghanistan is generating cash for the Islamist radical insurgents and corrupting many security officials and some administrative authorities along the drug-trafficking route through Central Asia to Russia.
Kucera quotes a number of Russian officials expressing Moscow’s concern about a post-U.S.-NATO Afghanistan. Colonel-General Vladimir Chirkin, commander of Russia’s Central Military District, told the Atlantic: “Russia should expect the activation of militant activity on the borders of Central Asia after the withdrawal of coalition forces from Iraq and Afghanistan. Threats can now come creeping to our southern borders.”
A more direct statement came from Andrei Zagorski, an expert on Russia’s relations with the West, at Moscow’s Institute of World Economy and International Relations, who told Payrav Chorshanbiyev of Asia-Plus in September 2011: “Moscow is afraid, first and foremost because what the U.S. and the coalition were doing is very much in the interest of Russia, keeping the Taliban as far away as possible from Central Asia and Russia.” And now that the U.S. is leaving, he told Chorshanbiyev, “Moscow has no viable strategy for this.”
Russian deputy prime minister Dmitry Rogozin, the then ambassador of Moscow to NATO, went on record in an interview with the French newspaper Le Figaro (17 September 2011), saying: “NATO set itself the task, and it must implement it. We do not want NATO to go and leave us to face the jackals of war after stirring up the anthill. Immediately after the NATO withdrawal, they will expand towards Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, and it will become our problem then.”
There are others. For instance, Mikhail Troitsky, a Russian analyst and coauthor of a report on U.S.-Russian relations and Russia’s near abroad, believes such a withdrawal would affect U.S.-Russia relations adversely. “It’s going to remove some of the glue that made the reset possible, and then there are all sorts of implications. If there’s no Afghanistan, I think people on both sides will think they can get away with much harsher rhetoric,” Troitsky told the Atlantic.