To leave, or not to leave | By M Ziauddin


To leave, or not to leave

THE US is in a quandary over Afghanistan. Leave or not to leave, that is ostensibly the dilemma. There are justifiable reasons for opting for either one of the two alternatives.

By leaving the US saves a lot of money and also brings to a final end the risks of exposing the lives of its soldiers for something not worth it.

On the other hand, by not leaving, it possibly saves not only the Ghani government from being taken over by the Taliban in no time, but also ensures that its regional interests are protected from being run over by a resurgent China and its veteran global rival Russia, jointly or separately.

Until about President Obama’s time when he started talking about mission accomplished in Afghanistan, especially after Osama bin Laden was killed on May 2, 2011 in Abbottabad, Pakistan by US seals (hunting who the US boots had entered Afghanistan, in the first place), it was regarded as a given that the US troops would never leave Afghanistan because of the country’s close proximity with an Iran having nuclear ambitions, a rising but challenging China and a nuclear Pakistan.

Even during the middle of President Trump’s term, there was this impression that the US was in Afghanistan for many more years to come despite the fact that successive US administrations since had announced a number of plans for gradually reducing the presence of US boots in that country until its last soldier left it not too long after.

Recent US intelligence assessments predict the Taliban will walk over Ghani’s national forces soon after a US troop withdrawal, a scenario that would abruptly end ongoing peace talks between the two sides and realign the region’s geopolitics in favour of American adversaries.

John Sopko, the Pentagon’s special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, recently told a US House Representative committee that Ghani’s government would probably face collapse” if the US withdrawals on 01 May.

Spoko’s testimony is likely to embolden the Biden administration’s plans-in-the-making to keep US troops in Afghanistan until Kabul and the Taliban reach some sort of power-sharing political settlement that leads to eventual democratic elections.

While America’s various options – stay, go, or indefinite delay – all carry their own dangers and risks for the US as well as Afghanistan, the Biden administration clearly does not want a settlement or scenario that disproportionately favours the Taliban over Ghani’s government.

Ultimately, the US seeks a settlement that allows for the inclusion of enough empowered political actors who will align with US policy, particularly vis-à-vis Russia, China and to a lesser degree Pakistan.

The US must also consider the Afghan interests of its budding ally India and its concerns of China’s growing influence in its regional neighbourhood.

The recent surge in tensions between the US and China on the one hand, and the US and Russia on the other, has intensified the Biden administration’s Afghan quandary.

US policymakers seem to understand that beating a retreat from Afghanistan, in the name of ending America’s “endless war”, would leave Afghanistan open to the creation of a Russian and/or Chinese proxy state.

Keeping Afghanistan in its axis through a political formula that includes pro-US political forces is thus immensely important for the US, particularly in the context of Biden’s drive to win “like-minded” Asian allies to counter and contain China’s ever-rising regional influence.

A China and Russia-aligned Afghanistan would provide a useful direct territorial link connecting south, west and central Asia.

Both are already making overtures to Afghanistan, seen in both countries’ “vaccine diplomacy” towards Kabul. Like Russia, China has also developed direct ties with the Taliban.

In September last year, Beijing reportedly offered Taliban sizeable investments in energy and infrastructure projects following a US withdrawal and a political settlement with Ghani’s government.

A Pakistani intelligence official confirmed in an interview with the Financial Times that while China is keen to help to develop Afghanistan, it also seeks Taliban protection from anti-China Islamists known to be based in the country, including those with known links to its restive ethnic Uighur minority.

If the US decides to prolong its military presence, as seems increasingly likely, it will push the Taliban to rethink its commitment to a deal that has resulted in a near cessation of attacks on US troops.

The Taliban have already warned the US that it will face consequences if it doesn’t honour its agreed withdrawal deadline.

In one of the most significant recent attacks against American forces in Afghanistan, sources have revealed that the Taliban targeted one of the most heavily guarded bases in the country late last month.

According to an unnamed US official familiar with the matter, rockets landed near the Forward Operating Base Chapman, a classified US military installation in eastern Afghanistan, and wounded seven civilians.

During a second attack, a water tower was hit and a few rounds landed on the base, although no American personnel were killed or injured.

Despite not being widely reported, the attacks were followed by another in Kandahar this week, in which Taliban rockets landed near a NATO base providing support to Afghan national forces.

This escalation in violence against American troops has reportedly fuelled concerns inside the Biden Administration that the Taliban could further step-up their efforts to target US forces prior to the May 1st withdrawal deadline.

Reportedly, the United States wants to maintain an intelligence presence in Afghanistan, as when former CIA Director Gina Haspel visited Afghanistan in 2019, discussions were already beginning over how to maintain and potentially expand the US intelligence footprint in the country – and that desire has reportedly not changed.

Some senior military commanders have also advocated keeping US troops in the country and have leaned heavily into the argument that a premature withdrawal could precipitate the collapse of the Afghan government, sources say.

Meanwhile, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani is expected to put forward a three-phase peace roadmap for Afghanistan during a proposed meeting in Turkey, seeking an agreement with the Taliban and a ceasefire before elections.

— The writer is veteran journalist and a former editor based in Islamabad.

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