Dr Muhammad Khan
AT the time of its military invasion of Afghanistan in October-2001 through Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF), the stated US objectives were to defeat the Taliban Government, eliminate Al-Qaeda, kill or arrest Osama Bin Laden (the Mastermind of 9/11) and establish a democratic government in Afghanistan. The initial military objectives of Operation Enduring Freedom, as articulated by President George W. Bush included; “destruction of terrorist training camps and infrastructure within Afghanistan, the capture of al Qaeda…” Taliban Government was overthrown within few days of US invasion. As per US estimates of 2011; Al-Qaeda was eliminated as a terrorist organization and there has been democratically elected governments in Afghanistan since 2004. Furthermore OBL was killed in 2011, in a US airborne operation in Abbotabad.
After completion of US above stated objectives in 2011, there should have been end of US military presence in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, against the will of Pentagon, the former US President Obama did ensure withdrawal of bulk of US military by 2015, leaving behind 9800 troops on nine US military bases in Afghanistan. Today, after sixteen years of US invasion in Afghanistan, President Trump has decided an active re-engagement of US in Afghanistan, which made the Afghan masses, its strategists and the regional states apprehensive of the real US objectives in Afghanistan and the region.
Sequel to Trumps’ announcement of a new Afghan policy, the strategic community questions the White House and Pentagon; had, stabilization of Afghanistan was aimed at through OEF or else, the hidden objective of maintaining a long-term, open-ended military presence was the real motive behind invading Afghanistan. Even in his policy pronouncement, President Trump said that, “We are not nation building (in Afghanistan) again. We are killing terrorists. America and our partners are committed to stripping terrorists of their territory, cutting off their funding and exposing the false allure of their evil ideology.” It is a nonconformity from the initial stated objectives of US. Since, terrorists would keep pouring in as a result of US ill-conceived strategies (or else as a part of greater US designs) and US military will continue combating them through an indefinite presence there. This is called a cause and effect relationship in the international relations.
For over one and half decade now, US political and strategic objectives have been masked. Only there has been a tactical combating of the Taliban, which even proved unproductive, despite deployment of 150,000 troops of International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). Afghan neighbourhood, Russia, China and scholars at large believe today that, rather peace, stability and economic prosperity, the real objective of US in Afghanistan is to maintain its long-term military presence. Whereas, James Mattis, the US Defense Secretary has admitted infront of Senate Armed Services Committee that, “we are not winning in Afghanistan right now.” However, he did promise that, “We will correct this as soon as possible.”
US Center for Strategic and International Studies has given an estimated cost of $770 billion in Afghanistan from 2001 to 2017. Then, being a longest US overseas war, 2400 US troops have been killed in these 16 years besides over 1700 troops from other countries of ISAF. Yet, there has been no success in these long years. How would another 3000-5000 additional US troop would make a victory for US possible? General Nicolson asked for additional 50,000 troops and later agreed to do the business with 30,000. President Trump even wanted to sack him, but, he survived for the time being.
Apparently, it looks like that; US involvement in Afghanistan was without any strategy. But, as Sun Tzu said, “tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat. Strategy without tactics is the slow road to victory.” The essence is that, strategy is essential for a war fighting; tactics is the tool, which keeps changing, according to situation and environment. So, United States had a strategy, started unfolding now. US military presence in Afghanistan will provoke Taliban and other militant organizations to continue their armed militancy in that country. Since, Taliban are fighting against the presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan (as stated by their spokesman), therefore, the more there will be surge in US troops, there will be more activities of these forces, thus giving way to instability. Taliban are still controlling over 50% of Afghan territory and are stronger than ever before. If 150,000 ISAF troops could not defeat them, 15000 US troops mean nothing to them.
The regional countries; China, Russia, Iran and Pakistan now better understand the US strategy for its long-term military engagement in Afghanistan. Besides, these countries also apprehend the implications of a US open-ended military presence in Afghanistan. Such a US policy will have long-term instability, not only in Afghanistan but all along its frontiers, impacting; Pakistan, CARs, Russia, China and Iran. For its long-term presence, instability in Afghanistan suits US and perhaps India (being its strategic partner), but does not suit all these regional stakeholders.
US engagement policy in Afghanistan, as pronounced by President Trump will rapidly convert Afghanistan as a hub of another major power playing ground. In a changed international environment, this will be a repeat of 1980s. However, the winner of 1980s may become the strategic loser of 21st Century, pushing the world towards a new world order, multipolar in nature, in which Donald John Trump may assume the role of Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev.
— The writer, Professor of Politics and International Relations, is based in Islamabad.
Dr Muhammad Khan