The US/NATO forces are in the process of executing their final withdrawal from Afghanistan under extremely unfavorable circumstances attributable to the combination of factors including domestic pressure by the war-weary American public for seemingly unending futile war, failure to achieve military victory against Taliban despite repeated resurgence, abysmal performance in avowed nation-building and institutionalization of sound democratic/ governance system, and finally struggling to cobble together a sustainable and comprehensive peace agreement.
While more than half of the remaining troops have left Afghanistan, the Taliban are making rapid gains and have already seized around 100 districts, resulting in the increasingly quick capitulation of government forces. Afghan forces’ fragility is causing alarm in US military circles both on account of possible disruption in foreign forces’ withdrawal and resurgence of terrorist groups such as al-Qaida.
Hence, there is growing vocal demand particularly by the security establishment not to completely turn back from Afghanistan for long term security interests in the country and the region and also not to jeopardize American credibility as an international actor; the proponents of continuous engagement like that of eminent American scholar Marvin Weinbaum aptly describe US’s fear, “With the vacuum the US leaves through disengagement, others regional stakeholders such as Russia, China, and Iran will pursue unwelcome political and strategic agendas.” However, it remains to be seen that in the absence of hard power leverage, how US will recalibrate its interests in Afghanistan, and utilize the diplomatic and economic levers to retain its influence vis-à-vis regional powers.
Similarly, regional powers generally accepted US dominance of Afghan because American embroilment offered an advantage in other more critical regions, but after US/NATO exit, the ensuing chaos in the neighborhood would entail a proactive regional approach to save the region from further destabilization. This paper aims to explain the US’s post-exit strategic interests in Afghanistan, challenges in pursuance of those interests, and its geopolitical implications.
US Post-Exit Strategic Interests in Afghanistan
After having failed to defeat the Taliban on the battlefield, and owing to the Afghan government and its security forces in complete disarray, Washington’s interests in Afghanistan will continue to evolve to better match its residual capabilities and very limited power of its Afghan partners. From the realist perspective the US’s key strategic interest figures out to retain cost effective influence in Afghanistan and free up resources to focus on greater power competition; the American security establishment is visibly apprehensive that a power vacuum in Afghanistan could be exploited by its competitors/ rivals to achieve political and economic gains.
Afghanistan and Central Asia Republics represent a key strategic battleground for global power contestation; therefore, it might not be prudent for Washington to allow a free hand to Russia and China to expand their presence via multilateral regional security/ economic organization like the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and possible deployment of security apparatus. Therefore, American defense officials have repeatedly emphasized the need to retain the intelligence and military capabilities positioned in the region with the declaratory objective to deal with international terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda; concomitantly it also allows the US to use such capabilities to counter other rivals.
The common narrative from Washington highlight preventing/ minimizing the chance of a terrorist attack from Afghanistan against the US homeland, people, and assets, and its allies as primary objective, although there is growing belief that terrorist threat from Afghanistan is exaggerated, for most of the terrorist outfits with global ambitions have shifted to other regions. The US interest is also to salvage its credibility from the Afghan fiasco that has been termed as another ‘Saigon moment’ for the US; American military leadership is cognizant of the unpleasantness of retrograde even in the most pleasant circumstances as described by Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin during his NATO press briefing; the announcement of humanitarian and financial assistance during President Ghani trip to the US is an attempt to minimize the chances of a massive humanitarian catastrophe, such as escalating civil war, and that preserves the capacity of humanitarian assistance during such calamity.
Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution underscored, “a very important US interest is to make sure that instability in Afghanistan does not jeopardize nuclear stability in South Asia by spilling over into Pakistan in a way that distracts Pakistan from the critical need to improve its internal stability”. However, this view goes against the prevailing ground realities.
Pakistan was far more stable before foreign intervention in Afghanistan, rather the global war on terrorism proved to be a breeding ground for radical elements prone to foreign exploitation. Most of the attacks against sensitive installations are foreign-sponsored whose evidence has been repeatedly shared with the UN and western powers.
Pakistan, however, views that withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan without a political settlement will accentuate its geopolitical vulnerabilities, and the American solution of managing the Afghan chaos from the neighboring states will only vitiate the Afghan internal and regional situation. US officials also lay a lot of emphasis on the preservation of democratic and human rights values, particularly women’s rights and girls’ education, and pluralism; however, it has accepted the limitations of enforcement of the western model of democracy on Afghan traditional decentralized polity.
The biggest challenge remains that the US and the regional states do not see eye to eye on many aspects related to Afghanistan, rather the bonhomie among the global powers to find an amicable solution to the Afghan imbroglio is fading and getting replaced with a clear conflict of interest. While America is keen to secure bases either in the Central Asian States or in Pakistan not only to retain a potent capability against a possible terrorist threat but also ensure the continuation of an effective intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) network, however, none of the regional states are willing to extend this facility. Pakistani Prime Minister has unequivocally rejected extending such facilities because of obvious backlash in the shape of domestic radical propensities and possible reactions from across the western border
Similarly, Temur Umarov, in an article published in Carnegie, stipulated, “In none of the three countries in Central Asia where the United States could, in theory, open a military base do the potential advantages for the host country outweigh the risks.” Moscow and Beijing are far more closely involved in the development of these states; therefore, they are more inclined to bandwagon with the regional powerhouses.
General Frank McKenzie, head of the US Central Command, has recently highlighted the difficulty in managing US air support from bases thousands of in order to gather intelligence and surveillance and keep the pressure up on terrorists in Afghanistan. Hence, expressed his reluctance to support Afghan forces with airstrikes after completing the withdrawal of its troops from the country. Similarly, with the surprisingly unprecedented success of Taliban attacks and based on its own intelligence assessment, American leadership is getting increasingly alarmed about the early collapse of the Afghan government and dissolution of the Afghan security forces, that may even disrupt its withdrawal and result in a quick resurgence of international militant groups like al Qaeda.
Similarly, the sustainability of diplomatic, development and economic engagement by the US entails the continued presence of civilian security contractors in Afghanistan, however, for the moment Taliban seems unwilling to allow foreign military presence in any form and promised to provide full security to all diplomats and aid workers themselves. Furthermore, the defense experts believe that without military presence in the country the US will be at a serious disadvantage to uncover terrorist plots in Afghanistan, the very plots its military is supposed to be preventing through airstrikes. A visible division among the US lawmakers about the country’s future role in Afghanistan is another major issue. The issue of handing over security of Kabul airport to Turkish forces exemplifies deep differences even to find a consensual solution to a comparatively simple problem that apparently benefits all stakeholders.
There are still multifarious hitches in the final materialization of the Turkish proposal to secure Kabul airport. In addition to avowed resistance from inside Afghanistan, even Russia has expressed its opposition to the continuation of any NATO’s member military presence in Afghanistan. Similarly, in exchange for securing the airport, Erdogan is looking for concessions including an agreement to allow its armed forces to keep and operate its Russian S-400 air defense system, however, both the countries could not reach an understanding during the latest meeting between two heads of the states at NATO summit.
There are growing signs that Afghanistan and the region are heading for more uncertainty and turbulence marked by the blatant display of domestic, regional, and global power politics. The US is expected to rely on the incumbent Afghan government and its regional allies to retain influence as long as possible. Similarly, the US is also likely to maintain ISR capabilities, preferably human intelligence resources, with the consent of the Afghan central government. With regards to the intra-Afghan equation, the Taliban obviously enjoy clear ascendency, however, they are expected to face numerous internal/ external challenges.
In addition to Afghan security forces, multiple ethnic militias have mobilized with government support, increasing the risk of civil war and unimaginable chaos and sufferings for the common Afghan. Furthermore, none of the states is likely to recognize the Taliban government purely established through military takeover, particularly without due representation of other ethnic groups. Simultaneously, regional powers may get embroiled in a ‘managed-chaos’ that, in a way, serves the US’s larger strategic interests in global power game-US has been criticizing regional power for being free riders. US domination of the Afghan situation undermined multilateral forums including the United Nations to find an amicable solution; unless established global/ regional multilateral forums are appropriated activated the regional powers will also face difficulties to reverse the prevailing trend.
The regional states will have to step up their efforts to articulate a political settlement; the biggest challenge will come from India-Pakistan rivalry likely to be translated into a proxy war, but regional forums like SCO could be utilized to bridge difference and find a consensual solution.
Afghanistan, obviously, will present a formidable challenge for the regional states in general and Pakistan in particular, after the American withdrawal. The country will no longer be a high priority issue for Western powers; hence it entails more attention by its all neighbors; the ability or inability of regional actors to find a consensual solution setting aside their parochial interests will have a major bearing on the country’s future.
Afrasiab Minhas is a defense analyst and a keen observer of international relations with an in-depth understanding of regional and global issues. He holds a master’s degree in Defence and Strategic Studies from Quaid-I-Azam University. His special areas of interest include West and Central Asia, and emerging power contestation in these pivotal regions.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.