Adieu Afghanistan, Au Revoir? A Distant and Difficult U.S. Goodbye, Part 1

US Taliban Deal Signing Ceremony
Image credit: U.S. Department of State / Public domain

In this first article among a seven-part discussion on Afghanistan, Adnan Qaiser, with a distinguished career in the armed forces and international diplomacy, examines why there is more than what meets the eye in the peace-deal signed between the U.S. and the Taliban on 29 February 2020

French President Charles de Gaulle had once noted: “Treaties are like young girls and roses; they last while they last.” Likewise, the peace-deal signed between the United States and the Taliban, ending a 19-year long-drawn war, on 29 February 2020 may not end as desired. Since the deal was signed on a rare occurring leap-day, its chances of success remain equally remote.

Owing to their respective compulsions, both the signatories of the agreement remain less than honest in their commitments. However, owing to its geopolitical constraints, while America can never bid adieu to Afghanistan – and to the region at large – Taliban, too, can ill-afford a complete U.S. divorce (discussed in next part). As Washington knew too well, what has not been won in the battlefield cannot be won on the negotiating table; Taliban also remain mindful of who holds the wallet.

It has although belatedly dawned upon the Americans that “victory [in Afghanistan] was never an option,” as observed by The New York Times in its editorial on 29 February 2020. Linking the peace-deal with the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam in January 1973 – after a “prolonged, needless and very costly war” – the editorial noted, “That is not to say either deal was wrong. On the contrary, recognizing when a fight has become useless is the right thing to do.”

However, as observed in my January 2018’s paper titled Afghanistan’s Managed Chaos: US Strategic Regional Designs, America has quite a few constraints to maintain its continued military presence in the region. 

Washington’s Strategic Regional Compulsions

First of all, in the backdrop of President Trump’s National Security Strategy of December 2017, Pentagon and State Department have shifted their focus towards U.S. strategic great-power competition with Russia and China. 

Secondly, a perpetually defiant Tehran, constantly destabilizing the Middle East and determined to become a nuclear power, keeps Washington preoccupied. 

Third, inter-linked to Iran, Middle East’s fast worsening situation merits Washington’s continued regional presence. However, after the Iraqi parliament’s rebuke, passing a unanimous resolution to expel U.S. troops from the country on 5 March 2020, stationing of American troops in Iraq is no more feasible. The abrupt withdrawal of U.S.-led NATO forces from the three Iraqi bases in Qaim, Qayyarah and Kirkuk, coming under continued rocket attacks, demonstrates limits to U.S. ground power in the Middle East.

Middle East’s volatility further obliges the U.S. to station two of its aircraft carriers in the Gulf region, as a sign of what the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) commander General Kenneth McKenzie calls “a floating piece of American sovereignty.” Despite downgrading the Iranian threat by stating, “We believe we have established a level of state-to-state deterrence, in that Iran does not seek a large scale military exchange with the United States” the general hastened to add: “None of their [Iranians] core objectives have changed.” Such a preoccupation necessitates deployment of troops elsewhere in the region. 

Fourth, Pakistan as a 23rd most fragile but nuclear-armed state in the world further warrants U.S. presence in the region. Enabling China to become a “two-ocean country” through China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a flagship project of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Pakistan has not only accelerated China’s global ascendency but also chosen to become a communist client state. Islamabad’s handing over of world’s third largest deep-sea port at Gwadar to Beijing on a forty-year lease could turn it into a Chinese naval outpost.

Finally, with more and more countries like Syria, Turkey, Iran, Qatar, and Libya joining the Russian camp, Washington can ill-afford Afghanistan to become a Russian ally, once again – or fall as a trophy in China’s hand.

National interests of countries are always blind and brutal. Thus, despite two decades of hemorrhaging of American blood and treasure, especially the loss of over 2,400 U.S. soldiers with several thousands wounded, and nearly a trillion U.S. dollars spent on an unwinnable war, it had been Washington’s strategic interests that kept it fighting a lost war.

Mark Mazzetti noted in his 2013’s book The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth: “In the counterterrorism vernacular, the requirement was to ‘find, fix, and finish’ the terrorists. But as [former U.S. defence secretary Donald] Rumsfeld would admit years later, ‘We had the ability to finish. We just couldn’t find and fix things.’”

The peace-deal invited a lot of public criticism. However, the U.S. cannot simply cut and run from Afghanistan. The Soviets faced a similar dilemma at the time of their withdrawal in February 1989. The Journal of Cold War Studies records that during a Politburo meeting then Soviet foreign minister Andrei Gromyko identified Soviets’ most important baseline strategic objective as, “Our goal is to make Afghanistan neutral [and] prevent its transition into the enemy camp” – a term Gromyko used to characterize “extremist mujahedeen.” 

It is, therefore, implausible for the U.S. to forsake Afghanistan as a war-booty into the hands of its competitors and adversaries like Russia, China and Iran. A continued American presence and economic support – no matter in a leaner shape and form – would thus be needed to stop Afghanistan from becoming an arena of regional Buzkashi (Afghanistan’s polo style national goat-grabbing game).

Point No. 3 of the Agreement’s Part Three affirms, “The United States will seek economic cooperation for reconstruction with the new post-settlement Afghan Islamic government as determined by the intra-Afghan dialogue and negotiations, and will not intervene in its internal affairs.” It is noteworthy that despite refusing to recognize Taliban’s Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, Washington has shown its willingness to support an “inclusive Afghan Islamic government.”

In the backdrop of U.S. intelligence reports citing doubts about Taliban honouring their part of the peace-deal, disagreements between the White House and the Pentagon are not hidden. Warranting NATO’s presence in Afghanistan, Pentagon’s National Defense Strategy (NDS) of 2018 unambiguously identifies threats emerging out of Moscow and Beijing in the new world order. The U.S. withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) of 1987 with Russia – seeking to include China in a new framework – besides creating a “space force” and testing new hypersonic missiles point towards Washington’s growing concerns and priorities in the changing world.

Thus, the presence of the U.S. defence secretary Mark Esper along with NATO’s secretary general, Jen Stoltenberg at Kabul at the time of Doha peace-deal was more than symbolic. Interestingly, Germany, NATO’s largest troop contributor, had already extended its Afghan mission in 2019. Foreign forces “condition-based” withdrawal makes the agreement ambiguous enough to leave enough room for Washington to maneuver under evolving circumstances in the future. 

Moreover, calling it a U.S. standard practice of “doing business in Afghanistan,” General McKenzie confirmed the media reports about U.S. leaving behind “special operators” to combat terror-groups in Afghanistan. The general’s admission confirms Washington’s long-haul in war-torn Afghanistan.

Washington’s long-term engagement in Afghanistan and Central Asia is further evident from its C5+1 platform – a multilateral forum that was established in November 2015 at a ministerial meeting in Samarkand (Uzbekistan), with a goal to expand inter-regional cooperation and boost Central Asia’s relations with the United States. Ostensibly aiming to address common security and environmental challenges, improve regional trade flows, and enhance prospects for U.S. trade and investment with the region, C5+1 remains another American initiative to not only check – and challenge – Russia and China’s partnership in Central Asia but also the steady growth of Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), having all the necessary ingredients to become a full-fledged military alliance from its present economic mandate.

Finally, America’s Pivot to Asia policy under President Obama, along with his secretary of state Hillary Clintons New Silk Road initiative and Pentagon’s expansion of its Pacific Command to Indian Ocean remain part of a larger strategy of maintaining a continued presence in the region for an unlimited time. 

U.S. Presidents’ Preoccupation with Afghanistan 

While commentators have criticized President Trump’s decision to withdraw American forces from Afghanistan, the president has played his cards well. On one hand, Mr. Trump has fulfilled his election promise strongly believing that “We should never have gotten in the first place.” On the other side the president has kept his options open – or that of his successor from the Democratic Party – by extending the complete withdrawal timeframe up to a fourteen month period during which Washington can decide to either wriggle-out or stay entrenched in Afghanistan. Being a good negotiator, Mr. Trump has aptly assuaged any apprehensions among the Taliban leadership about U.S. commitment to the peace-deal by speaking to Mullah Ghani Baradar for 35 minutes and calling his relationship with the Taliban “very good.”

That’s why, despite promising to end the “America’s wars,” even President Obama could not extricate U.S. forces from Iraq (due to Daesh phenomenon) and Afghanistan. Not having his heart and mind sold to the war in Afghanistan, Mr. Obama had further invited a lot of flak when concurrent to his “troop-surge” approval in 2011, the president announced the U.S. withdrawal plan too. However, becoming, what the president’s critics later called Obama’s “failed legacy in Afghanistan,” the commander-in-chief of the U.S. forces had to back away from his words yet again in May 2014. Thus, while receiving his Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, President Obama’s thoughts about wars as “sometimes necessary, [but] at some level … an expression of human folly” turned the quagmire in Afghanistan from a “good war” to “good enough war.”

In the face of Moscow becoming more aggressive geopolitically and an assertive Beijing harbouring greater global ambitions, Washington’s countermeasures to protect its superpower status make sense. After his subtle encroachment in Georgia and Ukraine, Mr. Putin’s overt intervention in Syria and Libya and close ties with Turkey and Qatar evidence his deft geopolitics. President Xi Jinping’s pledge, on the other hand, about building a world class army in a “new era” by 2049 – at the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party in October 2017 – should be a wake-up call to any American president. Carrying similarities to the Greek metaphor of Thucydides Trap when a rising power Athens challenged Sparta in ancient Greece – or when Germany had threatened the Great Britain a century ago – Beijing’s ascendant power has already begun to challenge Washington’s global supremacy.

Peace-deal: More than What Meets the Eye

Notwithstanding our public pledges and promises intentions remain a person’s sole prerogative and private purpose.

Despite beginning to pull-out U.S. troops from Afghanistan (in stages) and asking the Afghan leaders to end their feud, the United Nations and the Western countries have linked their crucial political support and economic aid and assistance to a future Afghan government – read: the Taliban-led political set-up – only if it complies to a certain given conditions, such as preserving and respecting the internationally-recognized human and fundamental rights of all Afghans, including women and minorities. 

The document that drew little public attention, but signed by the United Nations, the European Union, France, Germany, Italy, Norway, the United Kingdom, and the United States on 9 March 2020 also supports a joint U.S.-Russian agreement not to recognize Taliban’s Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. Such an undertaking not only dictates – and demarcates – Taliban’s political space to manoeuvre, but also stipulates international aspirations that bind the Taliban with globally accepted norms and good behaviour for future recognition and support. Such a clearly outlined “international wish-list” puts the onus on Taliban to evolve a political dispensation in Afghanistan that adheres to international norms and practices; otherwise the regime may once again be rejected and outcast deserving no financial aid or assistance. 

U.S. desire to stay for a prolonged period of time in Afghanistan, no matter in a leaner and more furtive manner, comes from its pledge to continue supporting the Afghan security forces. Had Washington been confident about the future prospects of its peace-deal with the Taliban and the ensuing intra-Afghan dialogue, there was no need to maintain an extraordinarily flabby national army and security force apparatus including a rogue intelligence network (discussed in Part-III: A Broken Afghan Edifice).

In his 2010’s book Afghanistan: Graveyard of Empires–A New History of the Borderland, David Isby had concluded: “It is widely said that the main cause of problems is solutions, and each solution identified for Afghanistan has the potential to create further problems.” The leap-year’s peace-deal, likewise, needs a leap of faith to materialize; until that time, it will keep peace in Afghanistan leap-years away.  

The question, however, remains that if the U.S. could not achieve any strategic gain during the 19-year war, would a continued American presence in Afghanistan serve any purpose? For instance:

1) Restraining Russia and forestalling a renewed Cold War – or a “great game” – in Afghanistan 

2) Containing China and its geo-economics through Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)

3) Punishing Iran for a regime-change and stopping it from accessing nuclear technology 

4) Preventing a fragile and nuclear-armed Pakistan from: (a) economic collapse; (b) its China-embrace as a vassal state; and (c) its drift towards extremism

5) Exterminating Islamic radicalization and terror-groups from the region, or

6) Extracting Afghanistan’s vast mineral deposits

In a detailed account titled What Went Wrong in Afghanistan, Foreign Policy’s Alicia Wittmeyer recorded opinions of eight eminent power-players to find out the reasons behind Washington’s failure. They found the U.S.: 

1) Trying to do the impossible with faulty assumptions and misplaced priorities

2) Marginalizing the Pashtun population and isolating the Taliban. Targeting the Pashtun Taliban created unnecessary resentment among the masses because of the aphorism, “All Taliban are Pashtun but all Pashtuns are not Taliban”

3)  Allowing Taliban sanctuary in Pakistan. “The U.S. failure to stop Pakistan is particularly egregious because the United States was involved in an almost identical program 30 years ago – with the ISI’s help – against the Soviets in Afghanistan”

4) Erroneously believing Pakistan could change its outlook, priorities and strategic interests in Afghanistan

5) Never developing a political strategy; instead kept pushing for an unattainable military victory

6) Turning Afghanistan over to the criminals like egocentric warlords, disconnected elites (from masses), indifferent foreign-returned officials, corrupt government functionaries and predatory privileged class

7) Failing to understand the country; its culture and its people in historical and contemporary perspectives as a foreign invader, and

8) Cut and run approach. Announcing to leave in 2014 by essentially abandoning the half-cooked broth

Words – pledges and promises – mean how we interpret them for our own intent and purpose. The leap-year’s peace-deal, likewise, can be summed-up by what Mark Mazzetti had noted in his abovementioned book The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth: “… instead of the “hammer America now relies on the “scalpel.”

Adieus and goodbyes are often sorrowful and onerous. They become all the more difficult after long relationships; partners tend to become used to of each other, with increased inter-dependencies. 

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.