Leaving Afghanistan – and turning the tables

Brian M Downing

Great powers have come and gone from Afghanistan. None have gotten what they expected. In the 19th century, Anglo-Russian rivalry centered in the Balkans and the Crimea, but Moscow’s expansion into Central Asia threatened British India, or at least seemed to. Officers from both empires parleyed with notables, skirmishes broke out along ill-defined frontiers. The Great Game was on.

In the twentieth century, Afghanistan came into the Soviet sphere. The United States and the Soviet Union clashed directly or indirectly in Korea, Africa, the Middle East, and Vietnam but Afghanistan was remote and irrelevant. In the late 1970s, after the shah fell, Afghanistan remained remote but became relevant. After the communist government in Kabul caused widespread discontent, the US and Pakistan encouraged rebellion, then supported a long fierce guerrilla war. Another game was on.

A third war came after the 9/11 attacks. The US, enjoying the support of Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance and almost all the world, drove the Taliban and al Qaeda out of most of the country. Washington embarked on an ambitious if quixotic program to modernize the economy and government of a landlocked, tradition-bound, war-ravaged country. After a few years, the Taliban became an insurgency and spread throughout at least one-third of the country. District after district fell.

Over the last few years a fourth war has emerged, almost unnoticed. The international support the US once had is all but gone. Global rivalries with China and Russia range across the world and have come to remote but relevant Afghanistan. Iran and Pakistan have aligned with more powerful allies to form a four-power entente that is tying the US down in an unwinnable war.

American strategic thinkers and policy makers do not understand this fourth conflict. They hold to the belief that all concerned parties want peace and stability and will cooperate on a settlement. Until the US recognizes the nature of the war, it will continue to lose lives and money in a financial and strategic sinkhole.

The US can masterfully turn the tables on China, Russia, Iran, and Pakistan. It can withdraw from Afghanistan and leave the burdens of corruption, internal divisions, wars, and rising Islamist militancy in their hands. It would be an adroit geopolitical move on the part of the United States that would saddle four opposition powers with financial and strategic burdens, perhaps indefinitely. American security will not suffer. It will benefit.

The post-9/11 game (2001-2015)

Few human events have brought as much international condemnation as al Qaeda’s 2001 attacks. Global rivals in Beijing and Moscow condemned them, as did enemies such as Saddam Hussein and Muammar Qaddafi. The NATO defense treaty was invoked for the first time. Russia and Pakistan gave critical logistical support. Even the UN supported the US.

American special forces made contact with Northern Alliance militias and began an offensive that drove out the Taliban and al Qaeda in an astonishingly brief period. Within two months, Mazar-e-Sharif, Kabul, and Kandahar fell to US and Northern Alliance forces. The American military had come through again. The American way would surely follow.

Over the next few years the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and numerous other powers began stabilization and development programs. The US State Department, Agency for International Development, Central Intelligence Agency, Health and Human Services, Treasury Department, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Department of Agriculture, and other bureaus all took part in the effort. Other countries joined in. Russia, Iran, and India trained security forces or helped with development programs. China won contracts to develop iron, copper, oil, and rare earth deposits, and built railroads to bring commodities to factories back home.

Despite the large-scale effort, or perhaps because of the presence of so many foreigners, a Taliban insurgency began along the Pakistani frontier and spread over the next ten years. The insurgency would not have gotten very far had it not had help. The Afghan government was, and remains, hopelessly inept and corrupt. Large development programs yield little if anything, as even a Pentagon oversight group (SIGAR ) routinely reports. Huge sums of money are swallowed up into boondoggles or find their way into estates in Kabul and banks in Switzerland.

The Pakistani army supported the Taliban prior to the 9/11 attacks as they provided hope of Central Asian commerce flowing into Karachi and an ally against India. The generals even used al Qaeda to train Kashmiri guerrillas. Osama bin Laden of course was found to be living comfortably near a Pakistani army base. Islamabad’s support to the Taliban and al Qaeda continues to this day. Arms come in, their fighters enjoy havens south of the Durand Line, and their councils direct the insurgency from Peshawar and Quetta.

The American response was to try counterinsurgency programs. But with a huge foreign presence, continued government corruption, and Pakistani support, COIN had no chance to succeed. More recently, the US has responded by sending in additional troops and conducting more airstrikes. Airstrikes for 2017 are on pace to be four times those of the previous two years combined.

The coalescence of the four-power entente 

There’ve been critical changes in the world over the last fifteen years. While attention has been focused on Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and East Asia, the Afghan war has changed – not simply on the ground, but also in support for both sides. Cooperation has become conflict. Partners are now rivals or even enemies.

Russia is far stronger and more assertive than it was a decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Former KGB officer Vladimir Putin is determined to see his country resume its position as a world power, preferably at the expense of the United States.

China too is stronger and more assertive. The leadership is determined to return their country to its place as economic and political leader of the world. The US, in their estimation, is blocking them. American military bases are all over East Asia and its carrier groups patrol sea lanes, particularly those connecting China’s industrial coastline with energy sources in the Persian Gulf.

Iran has recovered from the costly Iraq war of the 1980s and become a regional power. It has a long list of grievances with the US dating back to the Mosaddegh coup in 1953. More recently, the US has imposed sanctions and threatened attacks. The present administration in Washington is making new threats. Iran has aligned firmly with its chief arms provider, Russia, and its major oil purchaser, China.

Pakistan’s support for the Taliban and al Qaeda has been noted. It now acts concertedly with the other entente countries, China, Russia, and Iran, to thwart American efforts in Afghanistan and perhaps even deliver a stinging defeat there.

Russia routinely harass American planes and ships. Its bombers taunt American air defenses as in the Cold War. Putin has all but detached Turkey from NATO and is outmaneuvering the US in Syria, perhaps even with the Kurds. Russia is clandestinely providing arms to the Taliban, even though they are descendants of the mujahideen who fought it in the 1980s and an Islamist movement that poses longterm concerns for Russia’s southern periphery. Moscow has established communications with old Northern Alliance warlords such as Abdul Dostum. He served alongside Russian troops in the 1980s, until he saw better opportunities with the other side. Dostum today has a sinecure in Kabul and a sizable military retinue in Uzbek districts.

China builds artificial islands then installs runways and missile systems on them – all in violation of international law and the expressed wishes of neighboring countries. Chinese planes and ships disregard recognized territorial waters of neighboring countries. Beijing sends only mild protests to North Korea over its missile and nuclear tests and refrains from stronger action such as choking off commerce. China benefits from the display of American powerlessness. In Afghanistan, Chinese businesses have established close ties with the Kabul government, chiefly through investments, bribes, and presenting their country as the region’s economic and political leader.

Iran, like its Russian ally, plays both sides in Afghanistan. It has long had close ties with country’s Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras (the latter, a Shia people). Tehran supported them in the Soviet war and in the civil war that followed. It helped the northerners and US expel the Taliban and al Qaeda in 2001. A few years later, Tehran began arming and training Taliban fighters on an IRGC base near Zahedan in southeast Iran. It was not out of sympathy for their cause or ideology; the Taliban are a dangerous radical Sunni cult that slaughtered Iranian diplomats and fellow Shia. It was a warning to the US that an attack on Iranian nuclear sites would lead to more weapons to the Taliban. The nuclear program halted in 2015 but the Trump administration has renewed the tough talk. Iranian support to the Taliban returned.

Pakistan has refrained from expelling Taliban fighters or their war councils. It continues to provide safe havens and sends Kashmiris to train in camps in eastern Afghanistan. The generals occasionally remind the United States that logistics for Afghanistan rely on routes through Pakistan. The only other supply line comes through Russia.

The new game

China, Russia, Iran, and Pakistan are gaining from American powerlessness in the Middle East, East Asia, and Afghanistan. The superpower’s limitations and the entente’s influence are being made clear around the world. The entente is positioned to gain even more as the Afghan quagmire drags on.

The Afghan war distracts the United States from other parts of the world that are more valuable to most entente powers – and to the United States as well. Conflicts rage or at least simmer in other areas and while the US isn’t unmindful of them, it is forced to shift focus and resources from time to time.

The Afghan war is costly in both lives and money. The US has thus far lost 2400 lives and spent at least $841 billion. (Some expenditure estimates are much higher.) The entente powers calculate that protracted casualties and expenditures, without any discernible success, will sap the American people’s commitment to interventionism in the world.

The entente powers are positioned to bring about, at a time of their choosing, a reasonably effective settlement in Afghanistan that will enhance their prestige in the world and decrease that of the United States. Each power has significant influence with the Taliban, northern warlords, Shia people, and the Kabul government. Combined, their influence greatly exceeds that of the US, making them more able to broker a settlement. Indeed, they are indispensable to one. The US isn’t.

The entente will reap extraordinary benefits from large-scale exploitation of Afghanistan’s natural resources and those of Central Asian countries to the north. What Africa was in the previous century, Central Asia will be in the next. Paradoxically, American aid programs, flawed though they are, are laying down infrastructure that the entente will benefit from.

Russia and China may see this in grand geo-strategic terms. They are positioning themselves to dominate the Eurasian land mass, as Halford Mackinder outlined long ago.

Playing the game – and turning the tables

The US has responded to the failing effort by sending in more troops, asking the Afghan government to reform itself, shifting to counterinsurgency operations, demanding cooperation from Pakistan, sending in more advisers, and increasing the number of airstrikes. They have all failed. President Trump once questioned the usefulness of the war but recently decided to send in more troops.

The war was probably unwinnable even before the four-party entente shifted from supporting American efforts to stymying them. The US must recognize the new game’s nature and implications and respond to it with a thoughtful longterm strategy, not tired clichés and more escalation. There is a way to be done with the war and turn the tables on the entente. It does not entail protracted dialogue or more troops deployments or spending more money. It only entails withdrawing from Afghanistan.

The US should notify Afghanistan, China, Russia, Iran, and Pakistan, perhaps at a UN assembly, that it’s winding down military operations and development programs. All military personnel will be out in two years and aid programs will be but a trickle in that time or less. The US has done all it can, the problem is now in the hands of the entente.

The four powers will have no choice but to take up the burden. They have too much invested and too much at stake. China has developed iron, copper, and rare earth mines, as well as oil and gas fields in the north. It has built railroads and highways to bring the products west into Iran, south into Pakistan, and north into Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Afghanistan is key to the exploitation of Central Asia and expanding the Chinese prosperity sphere.

Russia is wary of Islamist militancy in Afghanistan. It’s already trickling into former Soviet republics which Moscow views as part of its historical domain, or Near Abroad. Success there will embolden Muslim populations in Russia itself, especially in Chechnya and Dagestan. ISIL is already gaining a foothold in Afghanistan, in some districts with the cooperation of Taliban forces, and openly stating its intentions of striking back at Russia for its role in rolling back its territory in Syria. The campaign for a new caliphate will, in ISIL’s estimation, begin anew in “Khorasan”, an old term for Afghanistan and surrounding regions oft-mentioned in Islamist apocalyptic literature.

China too worries of Islamist militancy, not only in Central Asian lands but in Muslim parts of western China. Thousands of Uighurs are already serving with ISIL and al Qaeda in the Levant and Afghanistan. Uighur terrorism has spread into many parts of China, even Beijing.

Iran sees the Islamist militant groups just to its east as virulently anti-Shia. The Taliban and kindred groups have slaughtered Shias in central Afghanistan and in refugee populations in western Pakistan. Tehran sees ties, albeit indirect ones, between the Taliban and Saudi Arabia, with Pakistan’s Deobandi madrasas constituting the intermediary. Riyadh funds those schools and many alumni go on to do graduate work in militant groups. As the Saudis gear up for greater conflict with Iran, Afghanistan may become a theater of operation.

All four powers want to profit from the exploitation of Afghan and Central Asian riches. Pakistan is desperate for economic vitality and will be more so once American supplies no longer use its port facilities and transportation system. It wants commerce from the north to inject money into the economy and bring wealth to Karachi and Gwadar.

Having encouraged Islamist militancy and helped create the Taliban, Pakistani generals must worry that their creations will turn against them. Pakistan’s Pashtun population is already hostile to the government and may want political integration with the Taliban, which of course is a Pashtun movement and possibly a separatist one at that.

Strategic advantages for the US

Withdrawal usually connotes defeat, failure, and shame. However, the US will gain tremendously from leaving Afghanistan. American casualties, expenditures, and overreach will decline – not greatly of course, as the US maintains a military presence in some ninety other countries. Nonetheless, American defense budgets aren’t limitless and trimming waste will be welcome.

The military will be able to regain proper readiness levels. Sixteen years of deployments in Afghanistan and elsewhere have taken a toll on the families and health of soldiers. The 11,000 or more US troops can be deployed to a region more vital to national security or returned home for rest and retraining. Some can be allocated to training indigenous forces battling Islamist militants. Military equipment can be returned to full readiness. Fighter aircraft, for example, are worn down by repeated sorties. The military will be more fit to defend the nation.

US gains will be accompanied by burdens on China, Russia, Iran, and Pakistan, probably onerous ones. They will have to assume responsibility for the war, development, and political stability. It’s possible they can bring about a settlement. After all, each has considerable influence with various Afghan groups. That would be a benefit to all, including the US which worked hard and long there.

However, the country is so corrupt and fragmented, its tribes so venal and grasping, its regions so antagonistic and hostile to central power, that the four powers will almost certainly be tied down for decades, perhaps maybe even more than the US has already. The strategic sinkhole will distract them from areas they presently deem more important.

China will have to allocate resources and possibly even troops to hold up Afghanistan militarily and politically. Beijing would much prefer to spend money on shipbuilding and airpower to master East Asia. Russia too will have to be much more watchful of its southern periphery, perhaps allocating tens of thousands of troops to Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan where Islamist militancy is simmering and young men stream south to serve in the Taliban, ISIL, and al Qaeda. Moscow’s coffers are already being depleted by subsidies and military actions in the Ukraine and Middle East – this at a time of sluggish oil revenue.

Iran will be distracted from more pressing matters in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. Pakistan will have less to work with in supporting insurgency in Kashmir and stifling one in Balochistan. And the prospect of losing Pakhtunkhwa (formerly the North-West Frontier Province) to cross-border Pashtun separatism will become an obsession in security bureaus where the loss of East Pakistan is still a trauma.

The four powers, like many wartime alignments, will have far less unity once they’ve achieved their objectives. The United States and the Soviet Union in 1945 are an obvious example. So are the mujahideen bands once the Soviet Union quit Afghanistan in 1989. Disagreements will arise over sharing military and political responsibilities and carving up Afghanistan’s wealth. To pick up the analogy of 19th-century Africa, there may be a Fashoda or two.

All four powers will be tied up with endless negotiations with and remonstrances by corrupt politicians, tribal elders, and warlords. The dialogues will almost certainly lead to divisions and arguments within the entente.

Who will train and advise the Afghan National Army and related security forces? No one will be eager to deploy troops into the country, least of all the Russians whose previous foray did nor fare well and left lingering enmity. Iranian-Shia troops will be welcome in the Hazara region and possibly in Tajik districts too but many regions will be no-go zones. Pakistan may welcome the opportunity to consolidate control over Pashtun lands but face opposition in the north where it is loathed for decades of meddling.

Russia, Iran, and Pakistan will note, correctly, that China has the most investments and should send in troops to protect them. Beijing will resist this of course, but the argument is compelling. The other three will insist on some form of compensation – a bigger slice of the pie. No one should be surprised if their presence brings about deeper resentment and a newly-focused insurgency. This should be known in Washington too.

Russia, China, and Iran will come into conflict with Pakistan for its support of the Taliban, al Qaeda, the Haqqani Network, Lashkar-e-Taiba, and others. Those groups were useful against the US but the new management of Afghanistan will be greatly irritated by them. Pakistan will resist pressure to abandon them let alone root them out. That would turn them against the Pakistani army and state, more than they already are, and contradict the Islamist-militant basis of the national ideology.

Iran and Pakistan will quarrel as to whose export routes should get the most traffic. Both routes, incidentally, pass through restive Baloch regions. Greater commerce will bring more turmoil as wealth will undoubtedly accrue to Persian and Punjabi elites, not the Balochs.

Longer term, even if somehow all proceeds even moderately well, Russia may find that the effort’s most significant consequence was opening Central Asia and its southern periphery to Chinese economic domination – a process well under way in the Russian Far East.

One of the portentous consequences of the four powers’ assumption of the Afghan problem will be a significant shift in militancy and terrorism. Presently, ISIL and al Qaeda focus on the West. Attacks come almost weekly. However, those groups are losing territory and being worn down by indigenous forces backed by western armies. Pockets remain and will persist but many fighters are heading for more promising lands.

Central Asia is a vast region where Islamist ferment is well underway, armies and states are inept, and an immense youth cohort sees no opportunity and is attracted to jihad’s promise of honor and glory. Attempts to stop the ferment have failed. Young men head for war in Afghanistan and the Middle East. In 2015 Tajikistan’s security chief quit his post and joined ISIL. It’s as though J Edgar Hoover went over to the Dillinger gang.

The drift toward Islamist militancy will continue whether the US or the four-power entente is attempting to manage Afghanistan. More foreign officials, engineers, consultants, and troops will accelerate the drift. The entente will face the forbidding and almost endless challenge of battling the emergence of a new caliphate, one whose leaders and fighters are already hostile toward Russia for intervening in Syria.

Their troops will enter district after district, village after village. Their artillery will lead to civilian casualties. Their airstrikes will bring about new Aleppos. And their own cities will face the Kalashnikovs, bombs, and trucks of Islamist vengeance, even more so than they do already.

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The American intervention in Afghanistan was based on post-9/11 outrage, resurgent faith in national might, and dismal intelligence about Afghanistan’s society and Pakistan’s generals. Sixteen years of waste ensued, as did several years of Chinese, Russian, Iranian, and Pakistani maneuvering. The conflict can no longer be addressed by standard approaches. It’s time to use realist or even Machiavellian ones.

The US should withdraw in short order and leave the deteriorating region in the hands of the four powers presently working so intelligently against American efforts. Rather than a defeat, withdrawal would be an adroit move that puts rivals and enemies on their back foot. One day they too may have to rethink their efforts on Afghanistan’s plains.

Copyright 2017 Brian M Downing

Brian M Downing is a national security analyst who has written for outlets across the political spectrum. He studied at Georgetown University and the University of Chicago, and did post-graduate work at Harvard’s Center for International Affairs. Thanks to Susan Ganosellis.