By Brahma Chellaney, The Washington Times, November 27, 2013
President Obama has decided to maintain U.S. military bases and conduct counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan after bringing the longest war in America’s history there to an end next year. His decision, though, centered on keeping a substantial residual military force, risks locking the United States in a never-ending, low-intensity war in that lawless, rugged country post-2014, including continued cross-border drone strikes on targets in Pakistan.
The Bilateral Security Agreement reached between Washington and Afghan President Hamid Karzai last week defines a U.S.-led counterterrorism and training mission involving up to 12,000 NATO troops, mostly American, and lasting “until the end of 2024 and beyond” unless terminated with two years’ advance notice. This will make the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan virtually indefinite.
Mr. Obama’s decision in favor of strong military basing in Afghanistan — where there are currently about 45,000 American troops — stands in sharp contrast to his earlier action in pulling out all U.S. forces from Iraq after a decade-long American occupation of that country.
Afghanistan’s Loya Jirga, or assembly of tribal leaders, put its imprimatur last Sunday on the agreement, which grants the United States important concessions, including a controversial immunity for American troops from Afghan law and permission for U.S. special operations forces to conduct antiterrorism raids on private Afghan homes. Washington leveraged the more than $4 billion annual security aid it has promised to secure these provisions.
However, rejecting Washington’s demand that the deal be signed by year’s end, Mr. Karzai — concerned over leaving behind a legacy as the key facilitator of a long-term U.S. military presence — has threatened to delay that action until his successor is elected in next April’s presidential election.
In any event, the United States needs a separate deal with the Afghan Taliban, or else its military bases would likely come under intense insurgent attacks post-2014. Indeed, the Obama administration is seeking to cut a broader deal with the Taliban to allow it to “honorably” end combat operations next year — an objective that has prompted it to kiss and make up with Pakistan, which shelters the top Taliban leadership.
The United States recently restored its $1.6 billion aid flow to Pakistan, which had been blocked because that country never came clean over who helped Osama bin Laden hide for years in a military garrison town near its capital, Islamabad. The aid was suspended also owing to the fact that the Pakistani military establishment harbors the leaders of the Afghan Taliban, who kill American troops, and aids jihadists who carry out cross-border attacks in India and Afghanistan.
Imperial Britain created many unnatural political constructs, including two countries that have searched vainly to shape a national identity — Afghanistan and Pakistan (or “Afpak” in Washington-speak). The Afpak belt, for the foreseeable future, is likely to remain a bastion of transnational terrorists, with the Durand Line legacy making Afghanistan and Pakistan virtual Siamese twins.
The Durand Line — arbitrarily bisecting ethnic Pashtun and Baloch homelands — is the Afghan-Indian border the British demarcated in 1893 and which later became the frontier between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Decades after Pakistan’s creation in 1947, the Durand Line remains a mythical border, with successive Afghan governments refusing to recognize it and the validity of the porous line challenged by daily cross-frontier movement of people and extremists.
America’s post-2014 strategy risks perpetuating the same mistake that has led it to falter in the ongoing 12-year war, which has cost nearly $1 trillion and killed tens of thousands of people — limiting its military operations to Afghanistan in a binational region that has become a single geopolitical unit, with militant sanctuaries, command-and-control structure and support infrastructure located on the other side of the Durand Line. Terrorism and insurgency have never been defeated anywhere in the world without cutting off transboundary sustenance and support.
In recent years, the United States has carried out from Afghanistan a series of air and drone strikes on Pakistan’s tribal Waziristan region, targeting the nemesis of the Pakistani military, the Pakistani Taliban. To preserve the option of reaching a Faustian bargain with its main battlefield opponent — the Afghan Taliban — America has not carried out a single air, drone or ground attack against that militia’s leadership, which is ensconced in Pakistan’s sprawling Baluchistan province, located to the south of Waziristan.
In seeking to co-opt the Afghan Taliban, the Obama administration seems unconcerned that it is bestowing legitimacy on a terrorist militia that enforces medieval practices in the areas currently under its control. Even if the administration succeeded in cutting a deal with the motley Afghan Taliban, powerful factions within it may not honor it. A better strategy would be to undermine ethnic-Pashtun support for the Taliban by clinching a series of deals with local tribal chieftains.
Mr. Obama, who had earlier promised to bring all troops home, has not explained how a residual American force, even if sizable, would make a difference in Afghanistan when a much larger force is staring at defeat.
A long-term U.S. military presence, besides compelling Washington to work with Afpak elements that have a long record of duplicitous conduct, could boost the militants’ cause. Yet if the United States completely washed its hands of Afghanistan, Afpak could sink deeper into a jihadist dungeon. The White House faces difficult choices, compounded by the administration’s failure to clarify long-term goals.
Afpak’s future remains more uncertain than ever, with considerable risk of an Iraq-style “soft” ethnic partition of Afghanistan.
The worst scenario would be the Taliban’s return to power in Kabul, with the militia’s control extending across much of Afghanistan. That would not only unleash a fresh reign of Islamist terror, but also allow transnational terrorists to re-establish a major operational base, thereby sucking U.S. forces into bloody counterterrorism missions. It would be as if history had come full circle.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author.