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Out of Afghanistan: US Needs to Rethink its Afghan Policy

Sushant Sareen is Consultant, Pakistan Project, at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • March 24, 2015

    The visit of the Afghan President and Chief Executive to Washington this week is crucial because it is likely to lay down the framework for future US engagement and involvement in Afghanistan. Reports in the US media suggest that Afghan leaders are going to urge the American President to stall the pull-out of US troops and rejig the withdrawal plan. For its part, the Obama administration has already made some adjustments in the draw-down schedule and has also allowed US troops to engage in combat operations against the Taliban if US interests are at stake or in danger. But whether or not the US will accede to the requests of the Afghan leadership and extend its military mission in Afghanistan beyond 2016 will depend on not just how much the Afghan leaders can convince the Americans about their future plans but also on domestic politics in the US. Moreover, global geopolitics and new hotspots in the Middle East could divert US attention and commitment away from Afghanistan.

    The decision to slow down the US troop withdrawals for at least this year has certainly infused a degree of confidence among most Afghans that they are not being abandoned or thrown to the wolves. While the panic bells have stopped ringing for now, the sense of gloom has not dissipated entirely, and for good reason. But for the alarming rise and the lightening advances made by the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, which at one point threatened to over-run even Baghdad, chances are that the Obama administration would have stuck to the original withdrawal schedule. Post the emergence of the challenge posed by the IS, the Americans realised that with their troops pulling out, Afghanistan could easily suffer a similar fate, something that would reduce to dust all the blood and treasure that had been spent to rebuild Afghanistan. The problem, however, is that this is at best a temporary readjustment, a last throw of the dice if you will, and by no means a strategic decision to stay the course and finish the job of eliminating the Taliban/Al Qaeda combine in Afghanistan.

    Clearly, delaying the drawdown is not going to change the dynamics in Afghanistan in any significant way. At best, continued US presence will prolong the military stalemate. It will not solve the problem of the Islamists running rampant across the length and breadth of Afghanistan. After all, if nearly 150,000 foreign troops with the most awe-inspiring weaponry and technology couldn’t pacify the country, much less decisively defeat the Taliban/Al Qaeda conglomerate, there is no way that 12,000 odd troops would be able to make any difference in changing the ground situation. But even the stalemate will be temporary because while the US presence might be able to keep the Taliban at bay in 2015, the next year will be a different story, or even the year after. What is more, the stalemate means continuation of the high attrition rates in the Afghan security forces. While they have held up reasonably well for now, no army can sustain such high attrition rates indefinitely. The Taliban, on the other hand, have managed to not just carry on their fight but also force the exit of foreign troops despite suffering enormous casualties. To expect them to enter into a peace deal at this stage when they see themselves on the cusp of victory is akin to wanting the moon.

    What this means is that by prolonging its troop presence in Afghanistan, the US will not be solving anything. In fact, it will only be reinforcing failure. Worse, it will make it impossible for the Americans to address the root of the problem in Afghanistan – Pakistan. As long as US troops stay in Afghanistan, they will remain dependent on Pakistani Ground Lines of Communication (GLOCs). It was precisely this factor that forced the US to turn a blind eye to the double game that the Pakistanis played for more than a decade, a double game which was recently acknowledged by the former dictator, General Pervez Musharraf.

    Quite simply, since 9/11, the Americans fought the wrong war in the wrong country. The problem was never Afghanistan, notwithstanding the presence of the Taliban and Al Qaeda in that country because they were really manifestations of a far more deep-rooted and vicious enemy – radical Islamism. The fount of radicalism wasn’t in Afghanistan but in Pakistan. But the Pakistan problem was never addressed, partly out of imperial hubris – how can Pakistan defy us? – and partly out of imperial diffidence – what to do about a nuclear armed country which at least publicly adopts a stance of subservience and even subordination before the imperial power? But once the US leaves Afghanistan, this dependence on a perfidious and treacherous ally will end and it will be in a better position to forge a more effective policy.

    The US, therefore, needs to rethink its entire strategy in Afghanistan and this must include pulling out troops much before the 2016 deadline. Why this is important is also because the current US Afghan policy is based on a hope and prayer that the ‘reconciliation’ efforts with the Taliban will yield fruit over the next year or so and things will settle down. There is, however, no Plan ‘B’ on what to do if this hope were to be dashed on the rocks of reality. By all accounts, it appears that if the ‘peace’ talks end up in pieces, as is most likely, the Americans and Afghans will decide what to do as they go along. Quite clearly, the absence of a coherent Plan ‘B’ is both unwise and untenable.

    Advocating a strategic rethink is not to suggest that Afghanistan be abandoned. Far from it, the US and other countries, including India, should open the floodgates of military and economic assistance to the Afghan state and help it by further building the capacity and capability of its security forces as well as its administrative machinery. As long as monetary and military support continues to flow in, the Afghan security forces and even private militias working with them will be more than able to hold their own against the Taliban onslaught. After all, they will be fighting a war for their existence and, unlike in the 1990s when the anti-Taliban forces were practically friendless, this time they will not only enjoy the support of the US but also rest of the West in addition to old friends like India and perhaps Iran and may be even Russia. Equally important, neither the Americans nor the Afghan leadership will have to enter into Faustian bargains either with the Taliban or with their patrons across the Durand Line.

    There are three clear benefits of such a strategic rethink. First, the confusion caused and ambiguity created by efforts to woo the Taliban will end. Battle-lines, both military and ideological, will be clearly defined, which will help in not just firming the resolve of the anti-Taliban forces but also identifying the enemy. Second, the cost of supporting the Afghans from outside will be a fraction of the cost involved in maintaining troops and/or pumping money into countries like Pakistan to make them see the light of day. Once the aid and other concessions flowing into Pakistan cease, it will turn the screws on Pakistan more effectively. Finally, if Pakistan still continues along its desultory path, then it will have to pay not just its own tab but also pick up the tab for its allies in Afghanistan. At that stage, will China step in to write the cheque? Unlikely. And if it does, then it will be interesting to see how the China-Pakistan axis plays out, especially in light of China fast becoming a Dar-ul-Harb in the eyes of the jihadists.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India