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The US Wants an “Honorable Withdrawal” from Afghanistan

As the US seeks an urgent withdrawal, there will not be durable peace in Afghanistan, nor a dignified exit for America.

John Bolton, the current US national security adviser, once wrote: “[Barack] Obama is pursuing ideological, not geopolitical, objectives.” If it was true about President Obama’s foreign policy in the Middle East and South Asia back in 2011, it is also true about President Donald Trump’s foreign policy today.

Perhaps the confusion between geopolitics and ideology led to policy inconsistency in these regions. For example, look at the US narrative. In 1998, Pakistan was “the most dangerous country in the world.” In 2002, Iran and Iraq became members of George W. Bush’s axis of evil. In 2018, Mexico became the “number one most dangerous country in the world,” according to Trump. Which one should be taken seriously? When it comes to the war on terror, policy inconsistency is the core problem.

The 2001 strategic narrative of the war on terror was affected by a policy of regime change or “democratization” in Iraq in 2003. However, later down the line, counterinsurgency in Iraq undermined both narratives of the war on terror in Afghanistan and democratization in Iraq. The invasion of Iraq not only damaged the war on terror as a strategic narrative, but also provided the Taliban with an unprecedented opportunity to fully return to the battlefield. Moreover, Iraq War opened the opportunity for Pakistan to protect the Taliban’s bases and leadership on its soil and choreograph a new proxy war in Afghanistan.

The grave mistake was that US generals in Afghanistan, who had been dispatched from the Iraqi battlefield, saw the problem through a counterinsurgency lens, and all their policy assessments were focused on a counterinsurgency solution (also known as COIN strategy). As such, the strategic narrative changed from the war on terror to counterinsurgency, and the conflict began to be understood as an internal problem. Regional countries such as Pakistan no longer needed to be worried about the consequences of their support for terrorism. This fundamental shift in the strategic narrative of the intervention made it difficult for the US to win the war in Afghanistan.

Consequently, the US held secret talks with Taliban representatives in Qatar in 2011, where the Taliban pressed the Americans to accept their precondition for further talks. This outreach was a clear signal that the US believed it could not win the war militarily and was desperately looking for an “honorable exit” from Afghanistan, similar to the Soviets in 1989. More importantly, as this author has argued elsewhere, this encouraged regional countries such as Iran and Russia to strengthen their ties with the Taliban. 

Regional disagreements

In the 1980s, the Soviet Union did not lose the war in Afghanistan because of the strength of the mujahedeen, nor because the Soviets were militarily weak, but because of proxy support and a regional alliance against it. As result, Pakistan, the US, China and Arab states supported the mujahedeen as their proxies against the Soviets. However, in 2001, the US intervention was welcomed by the Afghan people and the international community. Both Russia and Iran supported the US at the Bonn conference in 2001.

But soon, President Bush added Iran to the axis of evil and followed up by attacking Iraq in 2003. The Trump administration has exacerbated regional uncertainty by withdrawing from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — or the Iran nuclear deal — and authorized even heavier sanctions against Tehran.

Moreover, tension between the US and Russia has since impacted Afghanistan’s security, and Russia has established its connection with the Taliban. The Kremlin even provided them with an international stage at the Moscow conference for Afghan peace on November 9, 2018.

As a result, US tension with Iran and Russian opened a new front of destabilization against Afghanistan without yet solving the problem with Pakistan. This is paving the way for Russia to make a comeback in the region. Yet many believe that Washington is still looking for an honorable exit from Afghanistan. In this situation, it would be hard to think about a dignified withdrawal. The reason is simple: There is no such thing as an honorable withdrawal without winning a war. To win the war, the military is not the only option, but rather a matter of consistency in policies.

The US has not lost the war, just the politics of it

Ideology and geopolitical confusion have led to fragmentation in Washington over its policy toward the region for years. According to American journalist Steve Coll, there was no consensus amongst those who worked on Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and India under the Obama administration. It seems that the main reason was the lack of balance between ideology and geopolitics, coupled with favoritism in different circles of policymakers. Perhaps one could think of a situation where some liked Afghanistan, while others disliked it without any concern for policy consistency. Such a situation existed within the US establishment.

In August 2017, President Trump announced his South Asia strategy to press Pakistan to cooperate in the peace process in Afghanistan. This proved unsuccessful to change Pakistani policy due to the Americans seeking an urgent peace deal and a hasty withdrawal. For years, the US has been paying Pakistan to buy its cooperation, but Islamabad has refused to cooperate to tackle the Taliban’s sanctuaries, except in one case that was handing over the Arab members of al-Qaeda to show it was assisting the US in the war on terror. Those al-Qaeda members were not beneficial for Pakistan’s policy toward Afghanistan and Kashmir.

It shows that in the past 17 years, the US policy in South Asia was rudderless, and Washington was confused as to how to deal with the conflicting situation and regional actors. It indicates a fundamental failure of the US to develop a coherent policy in South Asia. So, as Professor Charles Tiefer of the University of Baltimore puts it, “The war is on. The proxy war, that is.” In other words, Washington is not losing the war, but the politics of it.

Put America first and get out

Now, the US has pushed different parties in Afghanistan to prepare for peace talks with the Taliban. In doing so, this would perhaps include accepting conditions for Washington’s short-term gains, regardless of fundamental values such as human rights, women’s rights and social justice. The Americans are using the rhetoric of a US withdrawal as a Sword of Damocles against the anti-Taliban forces inside the country by insisting that the US is in a “hurry.” However, for countries such as Pakistan, it is a blessing to see the US withdrawal and defeat in the region.

As Bolton wrote in 2011, “The highest moral duty of a U.S. president … is protecting American lives, and casually sacrificing them to someone else’s interests is hardly justifiable.” He continues, “Terrorist and guerrilla tactics kill humanitarians just as dead as imperialists.” This is clearly a nationalist line of thinking: It doesn’t matter who kills whom — there is no moral base for judgment about politics and violence.

Once upon a time, this line of thinking prevailed in the 1990s after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan. As a result, the country turned into a hub for international terrorists and exported atrocities on a global scale, including 9/11. However, once again, if American lives alone are at the heart of the US decision about peace and war in Afghanistan, there will not be a dignified withdrawal.

Today, there are more enemies in the region than at the end of the Cold War. The US has listed 21 terrorist groups in the Af-Pak region alone. Moreover, the increased influence of Russia and China makes Central and South Asia more unpredictable geopolitically. It is unknown who will define the future of the region, the battle against terrorism and the choice between democracy or totalitarianism. One thing is for sure, though: Afghanistan will still be the frontline for the US and Europe.

In the 1990s, the US leadership put America first, forgot about Afghanistan and ignored Islamic radicalism. The result was a civil war and a brutal regime under the Taliban with a safe haven for al-Qaeda. This ended in terror being brought to the US on September 11, 2001. In 2014, the US handed over the frontline of the global war on terror to a young and vulnerable Afghan national army without properly equipping and training its soldiers. As a result, the causalities increased and the security deteriorated dramatically. Therefore, with the urgency of withdrawing based on the US domestic situation, there will not be durable peace in Afghanistan, nor a dignified withdrawal for America.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.