Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics
America in Afghanistan until 2024 ?
The Daily Telegraph reports that the status of forces agreement that the United States and Afghanistan are negotiating may allow a U.S. military presence in the country until 2024 . That’s a full 10 years beyond the deadline for withdrawal of U.S. combat troops and handing over security responsibilities to Afghan forces.
The negotiations are being conducted under a veil of security, and we have no way of knowing, at this point at least, if the two sides are really talking about U.S. troops in the country for that long. ( The very fact that a decade after U.S. troops entered the country there is no formal agreement spelling out the terms of their deployment is in itself remarkable)
But it does seem more likely than not that there there will be a U.S. military presence, however small, in Afghanistan beyond 2014, and that is going to force the players involved in the conflict and those watching from the sidelines with more than a spectator’s interest to rethink their calculations.
Indeed, the talk of an extended force deployment may be an attempt to reverse the perception that America was in full retreat following President Barack Obama’s announcement of a drawdown that many in the military believe has only hardened the resolve of the Taliban insurgents and their backers in Pakistan to wait out the departure.
Now with troops, including a sizeable element of Special Forces, backed by the United States’ aggressive and unparalleled air power, to be based in the turbulent south and east of the country beyond 2014, the players have to shuffle their cards again. For those elements in the Taliban who may have explored the idea of reconciliation, the plan for a long-term U.S.military involvement in the country has just made their task even more difficult.
For Pakistan, the country most affected by what happens in Afghanistan, the idea that the United States is not going to walk away, sharpens its dilemma and once again goes to the heart of its role as a conflicted partner in the war against Islamist militancy. On the face of it, a U.S. military presence next door means continued pressure on Pakistan to act against the militant groups that operate from its soil. It means the drones will continue to fly in its skies and fire missiles at will.
It also means it has to be on guard against ground incursions by these foreign forces – after all, if the United States can violate Pakistan sovereignty in the skies with impunity and for years on end, what stops it from crossing the so-called red line of a ground raid. So it has to worry privately about an indefinite U.S. military presence on its western borders.
But at the same time, Pakistan has cried itself hoarse about the United States turning away from Afghanistan following the Soviet withdrawal of 1989, which led to the civil war, the jihadi gun culture into which Pakistan itself got sucked in and the influx of tens of thousands of refugees. That’s at least the Pakistan narrative and if they were to be held to that belief, then a U.S. withdrawal will again leave them holding the baby.
For arch-rival India, obviously it will have to be the opposite of the Pakistani position. New Delhi, which was taken off-guard by the U.S. military drawndown announcement and its blessing of efforts for a political settlement with the Taliban, will be quietly relieved that America is not about to abandon Afghanistan. India sees Afghanistan directly impinging on its security, concerned that a Taliban comeback and greater influence of Paksitan’s military spy service will increase the threat from militant groups fighting Indian forces in Kashmir and also carrying out attacks in its cities.
Given that its own options are limited by geography and a hostile Pakistan in the middle – it can’t really send troops there – it has come to rely on NATO. Indeed the uncharitable view about India in Afghanistan is that it wants to fight there to the last American soldier. See here an excellent piece by Shashank Joshi from the Royal United Services Institute laying out India’s strategic priorities in Afghanistan.
Iran on the other hand will be worried about U.S.. troops operating nextdoor for the long term. Indeed some will argue that part of the reason of staying there could well be to keep a watch on Iran, like in the case of Pakistan. Russia and especially China, which is taking a closer interest in Afghanistan’s resources and and its location at the crossroads of south and central Asia, are also wary about U.S ambitions in the region.
A year I wrote about the witches brew in Afghanistan – how each of the countries involved was trying to ensure a role in a post-war Afghanistan. They will now have to adjust their strategies to a longer U.S. involvement, even though the scale will be vastly reduced.