Recently, there has been a lot of coverage about America’s planned exit from Afghanistan, which is scheduled to take place at the end of 2014. Hence, it would be good to review whether America has changed its strategic vision for Afghanistan or is the withdrawal purely a tactical move. If it is the latter then what are the factors involved in pushing Washington to leave Afghanistan.
So let’s begin by recapping the importance of Afghanistan for America. America’s strategic goals behind the invasion of Afghanistan are:
1. Prevent Russian and Chinese domination of Eurasia
2. Prevent the emergence of the Caliphate
3. Control the hydrocarbon resources of the Caspian Sea and the Middle East
4. Control the security and the transit of hydrocarbons from the Caspian Sea and the Middle East
This is based on the following evidences:
“Eurasia is home to most of the world’s politically assertive and dynamic states. All the historical pretenders to global power originated in Eurasia. The world’s most populous aspirants to regional hegemony, China and India, are in Eurasia, as are all the potential political or economic challengers to American primacy. After the United States, the next six largest economies and military spenders are there, as are all but one of the world’s overt nuclear powers, and all but one of the covert ones. Eurasia accounts for 75 percent of the world’s population, 60 percent of its GNP, and 75 percent of its energy resources. Collectively, Eurasia’s potential power overshadows even America’s. A power that dominated Eurasia would exercise decisive influence over two of the world’s three most economically productive regions, Western Europe and East Asia…almost automatically control the Middle East and Africa. What happens with the distribution of power on the Eurasian landmass will be of decisive importance to America’s global primacy and historical legacy.” [Zbigniew Brzezinski, “A Geostrategy for Eurasia”, Foreign Affairs, September/October 1997]
“The US has had the ultimate aim of preventing the emergence of any major power in Eurasia. The paradox however is as follows – the goals of these interventions was never to achieve something – whatever the political rhetoric might have said – but to prevent something. The United States wanted to prevent stability in areas where another power might emerge. Its goal was not to stabilize but to destabilize, and this explains how the United States responded to the Islamic earthquake. It wanted to prevent a large, powerful Islamic state from emerging. Rhetoric aside the United States has no overriding interest in peace in Eurasia. The United States also has no interest in winning the war outright…the purpose of these conflicts is simply to block a power or destabilize the region, not to impose order.” [George Friedman, “The next 100 years, a forecast for the 21st Century”, 2009]
There is no dispute between the Republican Party and the Democratic Party over these strategic goals.
Consequently, there are no competing visions between Bush and Obama in foreign policy matters over this region of the world.
The difference between the two parties is related to operational strategy i.e. how to legitimise America’s occupation of Afghanistan and retain some semblance of stability, so that Washington can pursue the aforementioned strategic goals. The operational strategy has been the constant source of dispute between Bush and Obama governments, as well as between officials within the Obama administration. The operational strategy has changed several times, but despite successive revisions under Obama, the strategy has settled on four key objectives. These are:
• Increase the capacity of the Afghan government to establish its writ over the country. This means building the Afghan security forces, police and army, appointing competent and loyal governors and minimizing corruption in the Afghan government.
• Destroy al-Qaida and those Jihadis amongst the Pashtuns opposed to US occupation.
• Encourage moderate Taliban fighters to defect and join the central government.
• Enlist the help of NATO, Pakistan, Iran, India, Russia, China and other states to participate with the US in solving Afghanistan’s problem in a regional context— more of a multi-lateral approach to addressing the challenges posed by Afghanistan.
There is no question that America has struggled to achieve the forgoing operational strategic objectives, and therefore under Obama and his allies there is intense realisation that Afghanistan is no longer winnable i.e. it cannot be stabilized as set out by the objectives of the operational strategy. There are several factors that have caused America to reconsider its position in Afghanistan. These are:
• In 2008, in the aftermath of the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the global financial system came under extreme pressure and almost collapsed. This had a profound impact on the economies of America and Europe to finance wars and intervene in countries abroad.
• America’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have exposed the strains in America’s military. Simply put. America is facing “military over reach” and cannot maintain its current level of military commitments abroad. Washington is under intense pressure to reduce its military foot print to a manageable level.
• Since its intervention in Iraq in 2003, America is no longer the super power it used to be, and is facing increasing pressure from other major powers like Russia, Britain and France in different parts of the world. In the Asian Pacific, America is increasingly worried about the emergence of China, which Washington fears if left unchecked Beijing will challenge its hegemony in the Asian Pacific region. Graham Fuller former vice chairman of the National Intelligence Council in 2006 described the challenge faced by America from its adversaries. He said, “In the last few years, diverse countries have deployed a multiplicity of strategies and tactics designed to weaken, divert, alter, complicate, limit, delay or block the Bush agenda through death by a thousand cuts. That opposition acts out of diverse motives, and sometimes narrowly parochial interests, but its unifying theme usually unspoken is resistance to nearly anything that serves to buttress a unipolar world.” [“Strategic Fatigue”, National Interest, 2006]
The combination of international factors has had a profound impact on America foreign policy in two areas over the last year or so:
A. America has spent circa $550 billion on the Afghan war since 2001. Furthermore, successive budgetary cuts in the military have rendered it difficult for America to fight wars on multiple fronts. This has placed a huge toll on the defence budget. In January 2012, The New York Times in an article entitled “Panetta to Offer Strategy for Cutting Military Budget” stated:
“In a shift of doctrine driven by fiscal reality and a deal last summer that kept the United States from defaulting on its debts, Mr. Panetta is expected to outline plans for carefully shrinking the military — and in so doing make it clear that the Pentagon will not maintain the ability to fight two sustained ground wars at once. Instead, he will say that the military will be large enough to fight and win one major conflict, while also being able to “spoil” a second adversary’s ambitions in another part of the world while conducting a number of other smaller operations, like providing disaster relief or enforcing a no-flight zone.”
So America, which once boasted about its ability to fight two simultaneous wars, finally admitted that it could only fight one.
B. America is now forced to prioritise on which wars it wants to fight. America is faced with multiple challenges and has to cope with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and also prepare for war against China in the Asian Pacific, as well as the Middle East. Nonetheless, it is China’s dramatic rise that is worrying American policy makers the most. In March 2012, the Congressional Research Service prepared a report for US Congress entitled “Pivot to the Pacific? The Obama Administration’s “Rebalancing” Toward Asia”.
In the report, it clearly states:
“Underlying the “pivot” is a conviction that the centre of gravity for U.S. foreign policy, national security, and economic interests is being realigned and shifting towards Asia, and that U.S. strategy and priorities need to be adjusted accordingly. For many observers, it is imperative that the United States give more emphasis to the Asia-Pacific. Indeed, for years, many countries in the region have encouraged the United States to step up its activity to provide a balance to China’s rising influence.”
The reduction of America’s military footprint in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the repositioning of its military and naval forces in the Asian Pacific signals that America is treating China with utmost importance, and if the need arises, Washington is prepared for military confrontation. This is known as Obama’s Pivot to Asia strategy—re-balancing of US interests from Europe and the Middle East toward East Asia.
There are three regional factors that have complicated matters for America to forge a durable solution to the stability of Afghanistan.
• NATO led by Europe has resisted numerous American attempts to get more engaged in the occupation of Afghanistan. Ever since the commencement of NATO operations in Afghanistan under the guise of International Security Assistance Force in 2003, certain European countries have been reluctant to put their troops and assets in harms way. Belgium, Italy, France and Germany have all invoked specific caveats that allow them to place their troops in quieter areas of Afghanistan. Subsequently, NATO summits have failed to redress this issue, and America has found it difficult to carry on with the burden of the Afghan war considering its priorities have changed. In 2012 at Chicago, NATO countries finally accepted to draw the curtain on their Afghan misadventure. The statement at the summit read:
“After 10 years of war and with the global economy reeling, the nations of the West no longer want to pay, either in treasure or in lives, the costs of their efforts in a place that for centuries has resisted foreign attempts to tame it.”
• America failed to get Pakistan to mobilise more troops to conduct military operations in the tribal area, especially North Waziristan. This is despite that fact that its agents Zardari and Kayani, and those in the political medium worked tirelessly on the behalf of their master to make the case for greater involvement.
• India also made it difficult for America to succeed in Afghanistan. New Delhi did this by refusing numerous American requests to reduce hostilities between the common borders of India and Pakistan. Consequently, Pakistan was unable to redeploy troops to its Afghan border and assist America in its plan to subjugate the resistance.
The open tussle between Obama and the military leadership over US troop numbers and the time required to implement the operational strategy, led to General McCrystal’s dismissal and greatly served to undermine the morale of US and NATO troops. Furthermore, this further emboldened the Pushtun resistance. US General James Conway, head of the US Marine Corps questioned the withdrawal date. He said:
“In some ways we think right now it’s probably giving our enemy sustenance. We think that he may be saying to himself, in fact we’ve intercepted communications that say, ‘Hey, we only have to hold out for so long,'” … “I honestly think it will be a few years before conditions on the ground are such that turnover will be possible for us.” [US General: Afghan deadline ‘giving enemy sustenance’, BBC News Online, August 24 2010].
The manner, in which US troops conducted themselves, very quickly not only alienated the US from the Afghan population, but increased the ferocity of the resistance against the occupation. These measures included the desecration of the Quran, urinating on dead majhideen, indiscriminate killing of women and children, employing Tajiks to carry out raids in Pushtun areas, aiding corrupt officials etc.
In sum the combination of international, regional and local factors have pushed America to abandon aspects of the operational strategy and move towards holding direct talks with elements of the Taleban to seek an honourable exit. However, this does not mean that America has abandoned its strategic vision for Eurasia—it has merely parked it, and Afghanistan in the future will serve as a launch pad.
Abid Mustafa is a political commentator who specialises in Muslim issues and global affairs