US Withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Reality

With the year 2014 –scheduled for US’ withdrawal from Afghanistan – approaching nearer, the confusion regarding the form and even quantum, as also the ‘after-effects’ of US’ withdrawal, is increasing in the media reports. There are now the reported lurking doubts that US may not fulfill its commitment to withdraw its military by the end of the year 2014. There are even certain ‘researchers’ and ‘writers’ who are coming up with the ‘frightening forecast’ of a civil war in Afghanistan if the US withdraws from there; thereby indicating the need for US to revisit its commitment for withdrawal. On the other hand, there are reports that it is far too difficult for US to annul that commitment. It is felt that the main reason for such confusion is the general trend of taking the announced versions of the objectives and intentions of the main ‘contenders in the issue’ on face value, rather than digging out the realities hidden behind the facade. Hence, it will be of much assistance in grasping the real picture, if an analytical effort is made to discern the latent objectives of these contenders, and their actual capabilities and limitations relating to this issue. It is obvious that there are four contenders in Afghanistan who are directly related to this issue, i.e. (1) US, which certainly is the most important contender; and the critical analysis of whose ‘residual’ objectives and capabilities provides the key for piercing through this confusion; (2) Mr. Hamid Karzai, in his position as the president of the country; (3) the ‘Northern Alliance’ and associated non-Taliban Afghan warlords combine, who are considered to be the pillars of Mr. Karzai’s government; and (4) the Afghanistan Taliban. Besides these, the outside stake-holders who are indirectly linked with this issue are Pakistan, Iran, China, Central Asian States, Russia, and India.

US Bases AfghanistanTaking the case of US first, it must be understood right in the outset that the assertion in many publications, that US’ Afghanistan policies have reached this quagmire because of the ‘inadvertent mistakes’ of certain policy planning persons of US, is not correct. The much acknowledged fact now is that right from the beginning the actual US’ objectives in invading Afghanistan were far too different from what was officially presented to the US public and the world alike; and that, those were clearly not attainable despite the predictable entailed cost of immense human and economic losses, particularly to Afghanistan, Pakistan, and even US itself. Broadly mentioning, the announced US’ objectives in invading Afghanistan were to launch a ‘war on terror’ with the specific objectives of defeating the local ‘Al-Quaida’ elements and their helper Taliban government, to promote democracy in the country. That was of course a very clumsy facade. The fact of the matter is that US invaded Afghanistan due to three reasons: (1) Afghanistan’s location is such that US’ politico-military control of this country, when established, could provide the capability to US to gravitate its domineering weightage towards Iran, Pakistan, China, Central Asian States, and Russia; (2) control of this country could also enable US to apply its geographical leverage to effectively dominate the energy (oil/gas) rich Eurasia and Middle-East regions, as also the energy supply equations of these energy-producing regions with the energy-hungry India, China, and Japan, etc; and, (3) US could also exploit the hitherto un-exploited potential of energy resources and strategic minerals in this country, which according to the US Geological Survey amount to be in trillions. US thus decided to invade Afghanistan to bring the regime change of choice, establish its politico-military strangle-hold on the country, and to keep it occupied till these actual objectives were attained, and the continuation of that arrangement was ensured through a complete subjugation of the strategic will of the installed government in the country.

It is worth noting that in that ambitious planning, US government had completely disregarded the bitter lessons learnt by the previous adventuring super powers – Alexander’s Greece, colonial Britain, and Soviet Union – that the Afghans could be defeated by the thus occupying powers for the time being, but it is well nigh impossible to keep them subdued for long; because Afghans of all casts and creed just cannot tolerate foreign intervention, and are always ready to offer their supreme sacrifice to throw out such intervention. As for the question as to why then the US authorities disregarded these harsh lessons; the answer could not be ‘the inadvertent mistake’, because US government is known to have a vast arrangement of dedicated policy think tanks and advisers. Obviously, the US authorities made those decisions under the influence of the ‘power arrogance’ germinated by US’ high-tech military might and its visible domination of NATO and even UN Security Council. That was how the widespread devastation of the innocent men, women, and children, besides other material losses, commenced in Afghanistan with the brutal application of US and NATO war machine. According to Nake M. Kamranyand and Jessica Greenhalgh of the University of South California (Huff Post, 6 June 2013), at least 3, 315, 000 Afghans were displaced due to this US’ war, and the number of their war casualties in dead and wounded is also enormous. And, according to the Afghanistan Ministry’s report of 2009, two-third of Afghans suffer mental health problems, and over 800,000 Afghans are disabled due to the war.

It is ironical that such intentionally caused devastating human tragedy was/is being brushed aside by US and its allies as merely the ‘collateral damage’ for establishing democracy. And, it was/is certainly saddening that even after the continuation of that colossal human misery for about seven years (till September 2008), as high a percentage of US’ public as 61% supported this war causing mass destruction of humanity (PEW survey of January 2012). This aspect is highly significant in any analytical endeavour for discerning the stance of the people of Afghanistan – Taliban and others alike – in the context of assessing whether these Afghans would accept the continuation of any semblance of even the ‘residual’ foreign control in their country in the post-2014 scenario.

In the context of piercing through the prevailing confusion regarding the US’ withdrawal from Afghanistan, it is of significance to register the core reason, due to which the US government after long last announced its intention to withdraw by the end of 2014. That core reason can easily be identified by having a look at the casualty figures of US troops in the operation named ‘Operation Enduring Freedom’ (OEF), of which the US’ war in Afghanistan has been/is the major part (besides US’ military actions in Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Guantanamo Bay (Cuba), Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Jordan, Kenya, Kyrgyzstan, the Philippines, Seychelles, Sudan, Tajikistan, Turkey, and Yemen). The official report of US’ Congressional Research Service dated 6 December 2012, titled ‘Afghanistan Casualties: Military Forces and Civilians’, provides year-wise casualty figures from 7 October 2001 when this operation began. Those figures, extracted from page 1 of that report, are given in the following table:

Year Total Killed

Total Wounded in Action

2001

11

33

2002

49

74

2003

45

99

2004

52

217

2005

98

268

2006

98

404

2007

117

748

2008

155

795

2009

311

2,144

2010

499

5, 247

2011

414

5, 204

2012 (upto 6 December)

306

2, 877

This record shows that it was beyond US’ public to bear the climbing number of the war dead and wounded from own kith and kin; that is why the graph of their support for the US’ war in Afghanistan gradually slide down from 61% of September 2008 to 38% in January 2012 (PEW Survey). Though there was also immense pressure of US’ economic losses due to it war in Afghanistan – $557  billion till 2012 – yet it was not as insurmountable as the pressure of the losses of the lives of US’ military personnel. The intrinsic strength of US’ economy could absorb that pressure, and the US’ public could bear the related economic hardship; however, as a matter of their ingrained psyche the US’ public could not bear that pressure of own war casualties – and hence the US’ government had to declare its intention to withdraw. This factor which compelled the US government to cease its military adventure in Afghanistan is thus another critical aspect which helps in piercing through the confusion.

As Americans prepare to leave Afghanistan, the greatest challenge logistically is getting out $28 billion in equipment.
As Americans prepare to leave Afghanistan, the greatest challenge logistically is getting out $28 billion in equipment.

Next aspect which needs examination relates to US’ ‘residual objectives’ and the connected capabilities/limitations. It is obvious that after meeting such a failure in its longest war, US’ policy planners can no more ‘sell’ to US public their previously clamoured assurances that the war is being won. However, keeping in view the mindset of those lobbies (military industrial complex, ‘neocons’, etc) who usually dominate in lobbying for such adventures, the possibility cannot be ruled out that US government may ‘drag its feet’ on withdrawal, so as to   attain at least some gains from this military adventure. Obviously, it is difficult at this stage to exactly foresee/forecast the next US’ moves. A lead in that regard is, however, provided by taking note of the current state of US’ capabilities and limitations. In that context, the foregoing analysis makes it evident that from the point of view of its own internal political dynamics, US has an almost insurmountable political limitation on any idea of prolonging its war in Afghanistan. Hence, at this stage, there appear to be two more probable ‘residual objectives’ of US. The critical objective is to ensure safe passage out of Afghanistan for its military personnel, alongwith the military weapons and equipment, in each phase of the withdrawal. This objective is critical, because of its link to the afore-mentioned ‘core reason’ for the withdrawal decision. The vital interest is to endeavour, to the limits of ‘brinkmanship’, to convince the upcoming new Afghanistan government to allow US to retain certain of its politico-military tentacles in the country after the withdrawal. These may include certain of the US’ military bases, and some of the other elements of the US-Afghanistan Strategic Partnership, which was negotiated with Mr. Hamid Karzai. Obviously, this objective is more on the behest of the afore-mentioned lobbies, rather than an aspiration of US’ public.

As for the other contenders, Mr. Hamid Karzai doesnot appear to be of much weightage in US’ political calculations anymore. He has a long history of his CIA connection, including his tenure of CIA’s contractor during the days of Soviet war in Afghanistan. After occupying Afghanistan, US installed a government there which was/and still is mainly composed of the non-Pashtun (and mostly Tajik) group known as ‘Northern Alliance’, alongwith some other warlords. However, since Pashtuns form the majority of Afghans and are the traditional rulers of the country, US chose Mr. Hamid Karzai (a Kandhari Pashtun) to lead that government so as to present a ‘Pashtun face’ of the government; though it turned out to be of no positive effect on the Pashtun masses. US facilitated Mr. Hamid Karzai’s political rise to be the head of the US-promoted Interim governmental arrangement, and then to be the president of the US-backed government for two successive terms, albeit through widely known election fraud. However, all through this long period Mr. Hamid Karzai failed to deliver, both to the people of Afghanistan and the US; and now stands bereft of any roots in the masses. He, thus have no ‘cash value’ in the US’ political projected planning relating to Afghanistan.

Somewhat similar is the case of the Northern Alliance, alongwith the associated warlords many of whom are more known now for massive corruption. Northern Alliance was certainly a reckonable strong politico-military group during the time of the Soviet war in the country. That is why after the withdrawal of Soviet forces it could militarily withstand the then up-surging Afghanistan Taliban for quite some period, before finally melting out. However, after the demise of its leader Ahmad Shah Masoud, it has gradually become considerably weaker; and has lost much of its weightage in Afghanistan’s internal politics.

taliban-back
Taliban guerrillas ready to take back Kabul.

The case of the Afghanistan Taliban is however, very different – their traditional leadership and organisation is intact; their rank and file is more battle-hardened; they enjoy wide public support in their fight to oust the foreign US/NATO intervention; quite a number of non-Taliban and non-Pashtuns have joined their ranks from the districts which were earlier not under the influence of the Taliban – even many of the Afghanistan security forces personnel have started joining Taliban ranks; and that, being dominantly Pashtun, they represent the traditional rulers of the country. Additionally, the people of Afghanistan are not unaware of Taliban’s much better track record of governance; in which during about six years of their rule they reduced the poppy cultivation down to 25%; got rid of the extremely severe law and order problems faced by the masses; successfully conducted the very sensitive Indian airliner high-jacking case with excellent diplomacy; and displayed superior class of statecraft in not only diffusing the very explosive situation when Iran had amassed its military on Afghanistan border in retaliation of the murder of its diplomats in northern Afghanistan, but also re-opening its trade etc with Iran. Obviously, this stature of Taliban’s politico-military strength and wide spread public acceptability, in sharp contrast to the other contenders, make them the most suitable choice for US to work with to meet its critical requirement of arranging a trouble/casualty-free withdrawal of its military personnel and equipment, as also trying to arrange retention of at least some sort of its politico-military ‘presence’ in the post-withdrawal Afghanistan. That is the reason why US has now decided to negotiate with the Taliban – an insurmountable compulsion which has also to be accepted even by the war supporting lobbies in US.

As for the outside stake holders, US did wish to have the Indian politico-military influence implanted in Afghanistan to also serve US’ interests after US’ withdrawal. However, it appears more likely that US is now inclined not to pursue that design with vigour, because such a US act is bound to create serious impediments to bringing Pakistan on board in this issue, due to two major reasons. First, Pakistan government has officially communicated its deep concern to US about the functioning of Indian intelligence agency RAW’s ‘front offices’ along Afghanistan’s border with the Balochistan province of Pakistan, which have been established during the US’ occupation and are actively instigating insurgency in that province to destabilise Pakistan; thereby making it impossible for Pakistan to be part of any such ‘Afghanistan arrangement’ which includes the implanted Indian politico-military tentacles in Afghanistan. And, US authorities also know that the Pashtun tribes constituting the dominant segment of Afghanistan’s population straddle the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, due to which the masses of these two countries have a very strong religio-cultural bondage since thousands of years and mutuality of respect and affection; hence any ‘Afghanistan arrangement’ without taking Pakistan on board is bound to crumble a bit too soon, if not a non-starter altogether. Second reason relates to the ‘compulsive urge’ of US to arrange a trouble/casualty-free passage out of Afghanistan for its military personnel, as also the equipment which amounts to more than 600,000 pieces of equipment valued at $28 billion. For that purpose, US authorities desperately need the NATO/ISAF Supply Route through Pakistan because the alternative route, i.e., the Northern Distribution Network is quite hazardous and cumbersome, besides being thrice as costly. The serious problems of this alternative were also highlighted by Maj. Gen. Kurt J. Stein, commander of the First Theater Sustainment Command, in charge of logistics across the Middle East and Southwest Asia, as cited in a report of the New York Times of 14 February 2013. He mentioned, “there was another land route out of Afghanistan, called the Northern Distribution Network, which runs north through Central Asian republics. But the initial land portion is inconveniently long as it strings toward ports on the Black Sea, the Mediterranean and Atlantic, and presents its own challenges: railroads are of different gauges, and there are prohibitions on shipping lethal cargo”. — “Regardless, the movement north from Afghanistan requires passage through the Salang Tunnel, dug into the mountains of Parwan Province. The tunnel was a favorite of insurgent ambushes during the Soviet invasion and withdrawal. And, today, American troops are not deployed in Afghanistan’s north”.

From the unmistakable ground realities highlighted in the foregoing analysis it can undoubtedly be inferred that the afore-mentioned ‘confusion alarm’ created by certain quarters relating to US’ withdrawal is unfounded. There are significantly higher chances that the US will ultimately formulate its withdrawal arrangement in such a manner in which Taliban and Pakistan can be brought on board, because US now appears fully cognizant of the fact that only a Taliban/Taliban-led government in 2014 can be strong and effective enough to meet the critical US’ requirement of a safe passage out for the US/NATO military; and also, that only Pakistan can provide the vitally needed much easier and cheaper exit route for that purpose. Besides that, keeping in view their afore-mentioned track record of pragmatism in diplomacy and statecraft, Taliban may be expected not to be rigidly averse to meeting any US’ desire for the post-withdrawal politico-economic relationship with Afghanistan, provided that any such measure doesnot reflect ‘foreign domination’ in any manner. All these aspects reflect higher chances of US withdrawal by end of 2014, as planned. The only possibility of any ‘spanner in the wheel’, albeit for time being, in this schedule can come from the last ditch effort of the ‘military adventure supporting’ lobbies in US, whose pressure may compel US government to drag its feet on retaining at least some of its originally planned politico-military tentacles in Afghanistan.

Brigadier (Retd.) Dr. Ahsan ur Rahman Khan is a post-retirement PhD, and a research-analyst from Pakistan. The views expressed are his own and do not necessarily coincide with one’s of the ORIENTAL REVIEW editorial.

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