Afghanistan’s Overstayed House guest : US Strategic Regional Interests

Credit: Dawn, Pakistan


By Adnan Qaiser,   January 8, 2018


Winston Churchill held the view that Americans can be trusted to do the right thing; only after having exhausted all other alternatives. Defying common sense and international counsel to bring about a political solution in Afghanistan, US has not only reenergized its (aerial-dominated) military campaign to defeat the Taliban, but also threatens the neighbouring Pakistan with cross-border attacks and hot-pursuit operations – essentially widening the scope of war in the region, rather than wrapping up the follies and setbacks of past 16 years.

US would know that wars can hardly be won from air alone, as seen in the aerial strikes against Daesh in Iraq and Syria. Moreover, invading the sovereignty and territorial integrity of a nuclear armed Pakistan – a major non-NATO ally and a big stakeholder in the region – would be escalatory, confrontational and messy. However, America seems to have planned a longer stay in this region.

A Permanent US Abode in Afghanistan

In my last analysis titled America’s Waterloo: ‘Scapegoating’ Pakistan for Failures in Afghanistan, I had identified a few perils in politically, economically and militarily punishing Pakistan for loses in Afghanistan. However, it serves America in two ways: First, it gives the US a face-saving in America’s another failed war (after Korea, Vietnam and Iraq) by heaping all blame on Pakistan’s alleged support to the Taliban.

Secondly, an unstable region – with hyped up fears about international terrorism recurring – grants US an excuse to maintain its continued military presence for keeping a close eye on:

1) A defiant Iran, expanding its Shiite influence in the Middle East and pursuing a fast-paced ballistic missile program, threatening US allies and Israel. Interestingly, the current protests in Iran, against what President Trump had called a “murderous regime,” sparked from the city of Mashhad lying in Afghanistan’s close proximity

2) A resurgent Russia that is not only encroaching towards Ukraine and Georgia but also influencing Central Asian Republics

3) A rising China, and to disrupt China’s One Belt One Road initiative

4) An inflamed Middle East, owing to Mr. Trump’s support to an impetuous and brash Saudi leadership, which has not only waged a catastrophic war against Yemen (since March 2015) but also stays entangled in squabbles with Qatar, Syria and Lebanon, and finally

5) A rebellious Pakistan, whose extremism and nuclear-armed status worries the US – to the extent that Pentagon reportedly keeps its elite units stationed in Afghanistan to seize control of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. In its first foreign policy draft Trump administration has asked Pakistan to “demonstrate[e] responsible steward[ship] of its nuclear assets” while “insist[ing] Pakistan [to] take decisive action against militant and terrorist groups operating from its soil”

Two other possible US objectives behind maintaining a permanent presence in Afghanistan could include:

1) Establishing a long-term strategic partnership with India and granting it a bigger role in the Indo-Pacific region, and

2) Exploiting nearly US$1 trillion of previously unknown and untapped mineral deposits in Afghanistan including huge veins of iron, copper, cobalt and critical industrial metals like lithium

In this backdrop, one wonders, if it had been the US need for a “sustained enemy and managed chaos” in Afghanistan that led it to allow the Taliban regroup and give a bloody nose in a wave beginning 2005-2006 – after the Taliban was uprooted and crushed by 2004. In hindsight it looks that the motive behind repeated US goal-changing in Afghanistan – after eliminating al-Qaeda – was to ensure a prolonged stay. It is beyond belief that during the peak of Afghan War in 2010-2011, a ragtag Taliban militia numbering somewhere between 3,000 and 5,000 fighters could not be defeated by some 150,000 US and NATO troops, supported by Afghan security forces, warlords’ militias, and local militant protection force called Arbaki.

Questioning the US intentions in Afghanistan, Pakistan’s foreign minister, Khawaja Asif has recently noted: “The US wants a sophisticated listening post here to monitor nuclear armed China, Pakistan and Russia. Iran is also here. Despite being part of NATO, Turkey has an independent policy. The US wants to monitor all these countries through its listening post.”

The Unpursued Political Solution

It is evident that pursuing a political solution between thoroughly corrupt, inefficient and incapable Afghan governments (under Presidents Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani) and the Taliban had never been a US priority, rhetoric notwithstanding. The fanfare of Qatar Talks in 2013 died its death when Mr. Karzai condemned them and Washington dragged its feet on releasing five senior Taliban leaders from Guantanamo Bay and removing UN sanctions on Taliban. Furthermore, it had been America’s unenthusiastic response that rendered all international parleys with the Taliban futile. The international community, however, recognizes Taliban as a genuine political force carrying grassroots support; the world also acknowledges Taliban’s pledge not to allow any terrorist group like al-Qaeda on Afghan soil again.

US also overlooked the mischief played by Ghani government by releasing the information about the death of Taliban’s Emir Mullah Omar just hours before the second round of Murree Process (scheduled in Pakistan on 31 July 2015), in which a ceasefire was expected. US strategic objectives in Afghanistan remain unclear – and questionable – when it is seen as distancing itself from the talks’ initiatives taken by Russia (in Dec 2016 and April 2017) and China having major stakes in Afghanistan’s stability. Stressing the urgency of a dialogue with the Taliban, the tripartite Beijing moot’s counsel on 26 December 2017 is also expected to fall on deaf ears in Kabul and Washington.

Meanwhile the Heart of Asia-Istanbul Process (ongoing since November 2011), along with the Regional Economic Cooperation Conference on Afghanistan (RECCA) and the Kabul Process (launched in June 2017) remain purposeless congregations of participating countries and organizations. Finally, despite the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) – lying in cold storage since May 2016 – dusted and revived at Muscat on 16 October 2017, stays disjointed and incoherent.

The fact remains that neither the US nor the Afghan government – comprised of elites – desire to bring any changes to the political status quo that affect their long-term interests. Thus the rhetoric of an “Afghan led and Afghan owned peace and reconciliation process” continues as a fallacy. According to a survey entitled Peace Stalemate and Solutions conducted by Center for Strategic and Regional Studies (CSRS) most Afghans believe their government does not have a “real will to bring about peace.”

Afghanistan’s Unending Political Feuds

The Afghan (unity) government’s internal bickering and disputes, on the other hand, keep getting serious by day:

First of all, reviving the memories of President Karzai’s Mayor of Kabul epithet, President Ghani also saw limits to his powers when his sacked Atta Mohammad Noor, the governor of Balkh province, refused to relinquish his office.

Secondly, while Mr. Ghani’s altercations with Chief Executive Abdullah remain an everyday issue, the president’s differences with his foreign minister, Salahuddin Rabbani and former commerce and industry minister, Anwar-ul-Haq Ahady have also come out in open. Rabbani, as head of Jamiat-i-Islami party has refused to accept Governor Noor’s dismissal; besides earlier demanding security chiefs’ heads rolling after a wave of deadly attacks in the capital in June 2017.

Third, the sordid drama of Vice President General Rashid Dostum keeps shaming the government. Having escaped to Turkey in May 2017 after allegedly sexually abusing and torturing his political opponent, the government had no choice but to refuse him a re-entry in July 2017.

Fourth, Mr. Ghani’s meddling in the affairs of Independent Election Commission (IEC) may once again get the parliamentary elections postponed. Elections for Wolsei Jirga and district councils are set to take place on 7 July 2018; however, by sacking the IEC’s chairman, Najibullah Ahmedzai in mid-November 2017, Ghani displayed his political vendetta.

Fifth, Afghanistan’s ethnic bad-blood came out in open when a leaked government’s memo singled out Tajiks – country’s second-largest ethnicity – from recruitment in anti-riot Afghan Public Protection Force (APPF).

Sixth, Hizb-e-Islami’s chief, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, reserves his most scathing criticism for Mr. Ghani’s failure in dealing with the Taliban insurgency. Having returned to Kabul through a peace deal in May 2017, the notorious Butcher of Kabul keeps his eyes fixed at Arg (Afghan presidential palace) in 2019 elections.

Seventh, having survived in office for 13 long years through the backing of international forces, President Karzai now ironically demands their withdrawal date to be set by the Loya Jirga to enlist his name in the Afghan history as a nationalist hero.

In its hair-raising report titled On the Edge of Afghanistan, Foreign Policy documents the ordeal of disenchanted Afghan youth illegally seeking opportunities abroad – a journey from which many never return – facing an uncertain future with decimated economy and political chaos.

A US-Pakistan War?

As identified by me in the last piece, Pakistan has surprisingly taken a tough line against “fighting the Afghan War on Pakistan’s soil” – a reference to the American threats of cross-border attacks and hot-pursuit operations in Pakistan. In response to the warnings of CIA chief, Mike Pompeo and the Pentagon of taking “unilateral steps in areas of divergence,” Pakistan Army’s spokesman shot back: “[T]here can be no compromise on our national honour. We do not want a conflict with our friends, but will ensure the security of Pakistan.”

Meanwhile, vowing to shoot-down any violator of Pakistani air space – may it be an enemy aircraft or a US drone – Pakistan’s air chief has ominously stated:  “We committed a mistake in Osama bin Laden’s case [US heli-borne operation on night 1/2 May 2011] but now the country’s sovereignty will be protected at all costs.” Dreadful to conceive but Pakistan seems prepared for an annihilating US aggression – similar to the Cambodian bombings (Mar 1969 to May 1970) during the Vietnam War.

On the other hand, Pakistan’s Parliament, which had condemned US drone attacks as an affront to country’s sovereignty in 2013, moved a step further when the Senate adopted a unanimous resolution calling Islamabad to seek damages from Washington as compensation for the loss of lives and property from US drone attacks since 2000.

The low point in relations between the allies of past seven decades arrived when the US vice president, Mike Pence, on his surprise Christmas visit to Afghanistan dramatically warned about President Trump “put[ting] Pakistan on notice” for providing safe havens to the terrorists. However, probably learning open defiance from North Korea and Iran, Pakistan’s chairman Senate, Raza Rabbani’s retorted: “Two days ago, Pence had the gall, the audacity to say that Trump has put Pakistan on notice. Let the word ring out in clear terms that Pakistan is a sovereign state and is not in the habit of taking notices from anyone, let alone the US.” Pakistan’s foreign minister further chided that “frustrations on diplomatic front in UN and war in Afghanistan are reflected in statements of US administration;” counselling America to learn from Pakistan’s successful experience in the war against terror.

It is ironic that in pursuit of a justification for having American boots on the Afghan ground for an extended period, US ignores Pakistan’s sacrifices and contribution in the war on terror: In the 15-year period between 2002 and 2017 some 62,096 innocent Pakistanis lost their lives due to terrorism; Pakistan also arrested over 400 al-Qaeda terrorists on its soil.

US Flawed Understanding of Afghanistan

President Trump’s revised priorities in Afghanistan conveyed to the US Congress remain bereft of any political solution. However, winning the war militarily is also next to impossible. US carpet-bombings remind the words of India’s famed author, Arundhati Roy, who at the beginning of the Afghan War in 2001 had noted: “Can you destroy destruction? Dropping more bombs on Afghanistan will only shuffle the rubble, scramble some old graves and disturb the dead.”

While Afghanistan is teetering apart under daily attacks by the Taliban and Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K), Washington has antagonized regional stakeholders like Moscow, Beijing, Tehran and Islamabad. Pakistan’s national security advisor, Nasir Janjua has recently slated US for “exporting war [and bringing] perpetual instability” in South Asia by “speaking Indian language” in bilateral dealings – a reference to evolving Indo-US strategic partnership.

Three successive US presidents could not define their objectives in Afghanistan clearly and continued reinforcing failure. Had the Taliban given some political accommodation, the IS-K could never have established its foothold in Afghanistan. While US strategic interests in maintaining a permanent presence in West Asia are understandable, America’s days of dictating its policy are nearing an end under a new emerging multi-polar world order.

As I had noted in a previous submission entitled Afghanistan: A Graveyard of Empires or an Afghan Cemetery, it is imperative to understand Afghanistan’s political fundamentals and its societal norms and mores:

1) Its nationalist DNA loathes foreign presence

2) Its people remain ensnared in intrinsic ethno-linguistic discords, mutual distrust and a culture of revenge

3) Its leadership stays addicted to a historic rentier mindset (leasing-out sovereignty to foreign powers)

4) Its politics espouses tribal warlordism, having weak central control over periphery areas

5) Its economy thrives through wars and organized crime, particularly narcotics trade

6) It is governed by exploitative, self-serving and thoroughly corrupt elite, having no commitment with the nation, and

7) Its ethos is defined by a largely rural-based, Islamic-moored, Sharia-adhered, orthodox society

For centuries Afghans have governed themselves resisting foreign interventions. Notwithstanding its loathsome practices, Taliban too, remain legitimate part of Afghan fabric. Only an honest and genuine political reconciliation can save Afghanistan from further bloodshed. However, despite having half a dozen bases in Afghanistan already, US construction of “Camp Shaheen” demonstrates that Afghanistan’s houseguest is not inclined to depart anytime soon – nor would be the managed chaos and regional instability.

Though, it is not wise to outlive one’s utility; or outstay one’s welcome.


Adnan Qaiser is Research Associate at the Conference of Defence Associations Institute, Canada, with a distinguished career in the armed forces and international diplomacy. These are author’s personal views. He can be reached at: 



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