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The best of bad options for Afghanistan

Last May, U.S. President Barack Obama recalled the warning of James Madison -- America's fourth president -- that "no nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare." Yet even as he aims to end the longest war in his country's history, in Afghanistan, Obama has had a change of heart on a key aspect: He now wants virtually permanent military bases in that rugged, landlocked country to house a sizable U.S.-led NATO force armed with authority to "conduct combat operations." 

     Such is Obama's new determination to maintain military deployments in war-torn Afghanistan that he recently telephoned President Hamid Karzai in a last-ditch effort to persuade him to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement negotiated between the two countries. The agreement would provide the legal basis for maintaining U.S. bases in Afghanistan indefinitely, but Karzai remained adamant that a decision on the matter must be left to his successor, who will assume office in May after next month's election. 

     Obama now has little choice but to wait and try to persuade the next Afghan government to sign the BSA. It is still unclear who has the best chance of succeeding Karzai.

     All nine Afghan presidential candidates say they support the accord, but this offers little comfort to Washington. Not only are several former or current warlords in the fray, but most of the candidates in the past have supported an agenda directly at odds with U.S. interests.

"Quiet" U.S. reversal

Obama declared in Cairo in 2009, "We do not want to keep our troops in Afghanistan. We seek no military bases there." He reversed his position quietly, without any debate in the war-weary U.S. Congress or outside. What was supposed to be an endgame for Afghanistan has turned into a new battle over long-term bases.

     Obama has offered no explanation as to how a residual American-led force would make a difference in Afghanistan when a much larger force is staring at defeat in a war that began nearly 13 years ago.

     The plan is to keep up to 10,000 American troops in Afghanistan, supplemented by several thousand soldiers from other NATO states. This would be more than double the number of troops that the U.S. claims Russia has deployed in the Crimean peninsula. In essence, Obama's basing strategy could presage a shift from a full-fledged war to a low-intensity war.

     Indeed, it was his administration's feverish diplomatic offensive that helped to finalize negotiations over the BSA with Kabul on Washington's terms. The accord, for example, grants American troops immunity from Afghan law and permits U.S. special operations forces to conduct antiterrorism raids on private Afghan homes.

     But no sooner had the loya jirga, or assembly of Afghan tribal leaders, approved the BSA last November than Obama and his top officials began pressuring Karzai to sign the accord. Obama warned that if the pact was not signed by the end of 2013, he would withdraw all U.S. troops ahead of schedule. Karzai simply ignored the threat.

     In truth, Karzai has been afraid that if he signed a pact allowing foreign military bases indefinitely, he could go down in Afghan history as the second Shah Shuja. A puppet ruler installed by the British in 1839, Shah Shuja was deposed and assassinated three years later but not before precipitating the First Anglo-Afghan War.

     To be sure, America's ongoing drawdown of troop levels in Afghanistan seeks to apply a key lesson from the Soviet military pullout from that nation -- the critical importance of staggered and calibrated reductions. The 1988-89 Soviet withdrawal happened too rapidly.

     U.S. troop strength in Afghanistan, which reached slightly more than 100,000 in 2010 at the height of the "surge," has been gradually reduced since 2012, with just 20,000 soldiers scheduled to remain by mid-summer. In addition to a BSA with Kabul, Washington is seeking a peace deal with the Afghan Taliban, which, with U.S. support, has opened a de facto diplomatic mission in Qatar.

     By hedging its bets, the Obama policy is pursuing a "heads I win, tails you lose" approach to military basing in Afghanistan. It is doubtful, however, that this approach will succeed. Indeed, the hedging itself suggests that Washington is not confident about its post-2014 strategy. America's new, Ukraine-triggered cold war with Russia -- a key conduit for U.S. military supplies to Afghanistan -- could also hurt the basing strategy. 

Missing the big picture

Lost in the wrangle over enforcing the BSA is the very logic of Obama's basing strategy, with the real and rising risk of mission creep. After all, the BSA grants U.S. forces a broad mandate, covering counterterrorism and other combat operations as well as training activities. It cannot be forgotten that the limited authority Congress gave Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush, to use force against those who "planned, authorized, committed or aided" the 9/11 attacks on the U.S. spawned an expansive military intervention that has cost $600 billion and left countless dead.

     Also lost is the fact that Obama's basing strategy is built on the same flawed premise that has undercut the protracted U.S. military intervention -- that counterinsurgency operations can be limited to Afghanistan, even though terrorist havens and the command-and-control structure for the Afghan insurgency remain located on the other side of the disputed Durand Line in Pakistan. Terrorism and insurgency have never been defeated in any country without choking transboundary sustenance and support.  

     The Obama administration, far from bringing a recalcitrant Pakistan to heel, has rewarded it with multibillion-dollar aid. Moreover, it has agreed to taper off drone attacks launched from Afghanistan and carried out in Pakistan. The number of U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan actually declined from 122 in 2010 to 26 in 2013, with no attacks occurring since last December.

     Even more revealing is what the drones have not targeted. To preserve the option of reaching a Faustian bargain with its main battlefield opponent, the Afghan Taliban, the U.S. has not carried out a single air, drone or ground attack against that militia's leadership, which is ensconced in Pakistan's sprawling Balochistan province. U.S. drone strikes have been restricted to the Pakistani tribal region to the north, Waziristan, where they have targeted the nemesis of the Pakistani military -- the Pakistani Taliban.

Internal change or none at all

Afghanistan has been at war since 1979, when Soviet forces invaded in what became a disastrous eight-year intervention. After almost 35 years of bloodletting, Afghanistan must find peace.

     The country's political and security transition will be shaped positively not by a continued role for foreign forces but by three internal factors -- a credible, widely respected successor to Karzai who is able to build bridges with all ethnic and political groups; free and fair parliamentary elections next year; and the strengthening of the still-fledgling, multiethnic Afghan Army.

     Obama's policy, however, could undermine such dynamics. Security for any residual U.S.-led forces and a face-saving official "end" to the war has prompted Washington to step up efforts to cut a deal with the Afghan Taliban. It has peremptorily offered the militia administrative autonomy in Afghanistan's south and east, including provincial governorships, in exchange for a pledge not to attack American bases. Such dealmaking has angered Karzai because it amounts to bringing his political base in the south, including his own village, under Taliban administration, thus undercutting his strategy to stay relevant in Afghan politics beyond his presidential term.

     Consider another paradox: The U.S., while seeking to keep military bases, has unveiled plans to significantly reduce aid flow to Kabul. The aid cuts are likely to compel the Afghan government to focus on the onerous task of creating a leaner and meaner security force because the present size cannot be maintained with the current level of national revenue collections, which totaled just $1.7 billion last year. This exigency will only increase the compulsion for foreign forces to stay.

     There are admittedly no good options for Afghanistan. But an indefinite role for foreign forces would be the equivalent of administering the same medicine that has so far only worsened the patient's condition. A complete U.S. military withdrawal, coupled with international efforts to strengthen the hand of the next Afghan administration and American aid to Pakistan contingent on that country's noninterference in Afghanistan would be the best of bad options to help stabilize that unfortunate country.

Brahma Chellaney, a professor at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research, is a geostrategist and the winner of the Bernard Schwartz Book Award.


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