President Trump is struggling to find a new strategy in the war on Afghanistan. The new strategy must be no other but to leave Afghanistan.
Put aside the prognostic historical narratives that Afghanistan is the graveyard of invading superpowers. On the basis of concrete facts, analyzed below, the US faces a difficult future in Afghanistan and has two options: first, and the better one, leave Afghanistan as quickly as possible; second, stay and continue sacrificing American sons and daughters, recruited mostly from less privileged families. Because very few US politicians and policymakers send their own children to fight wars they advocate, they have no skin in the game and hence they are unlikely to propose leaving Afghanistan. Likewise, the military generals demanding more troops will rarely enter the battlefield staking their own bodies to enemy attack. Not to persuade but to caution the U.S. establishment occupying comfortable offices in Washington D.C., this commentary argues that the US has zero optionality of a military victory even though it can inflict manifold more devastation on the people of Afghanistan.
Vanishing Historical Context
History often provides a justificatory context for starting a war and then vanishes in the background to witness nations trapped in armed conflict. In 2001, the U.S. had a credible, though unwise, basis to invade Afghanistan. Recall that the 9/11 terrorist attacks were allegedly perpetrated by Osama bin Laden operating under the protection of the Taliban government. Overthrowing the Taliban infrastructure and destroying Al-Qaeda justified the U.S. invasion. The NATO invoked Article 5 of its Charter to support the invasion. The UN Security Council “called upon Member States to contribute personnel, equipment and other resources to the Force (U.S.).” The whole world descended on Afghanistan.
Yet, the Afghanistan war, much like a blurred movie, progressed to confuse the global audience. The Taliban were quickly overthrown and the Al-Qaeda was degraded with mega bombs. The NATO allies gradually departed, leaving the U.S. alone to face the tenacious Muslim militants. The U.S. started other wars in the Middle East but did not leave Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the Pashtuns in Pakistan started to assist their kinsfolks in Afghanistan and Pakistan too was inducted into the conflict, though not fully. Because of domestic complexities, Pakistan offered logistical support to the U.S. but refused to join the war. The U.S. has used carrots and sticks to bring Pakistan armed forces into the Afghan conflict but failed.
The regional powers make sure that the U.S. remains ensnared in an unwinnable war.
As a frustrated superpower, the U.S. begins to disregard the obligation of laws. It resorts to torture in Afghan prison camps. On slightest suspicion, the U.S. Special Forces pick Afghan teachers and taxi drivers and transport them to Guantanamo. The erratic bombings hit wedding parties. The drone warfare is started to kill “terrorists” but innocent civilians are slaughtered. The U.S. loses its moral and legal justification to stay in Afghanistan. The 9/11 atrocities recede into archives, making room for U.S. war crimes. In the midst of U.S. wars in Iraq, Libya, and Syria, Afghanistan morphs into terminal poison for the occupying forces. Befuddled U.S presidents, one after the other, cannot disentangle the U.S. from Afghanistan. The regional powers make sure that the U.S. remains ensnared in an unwinnable war.
Slowly but steadily, like proverbial tortoises, the regional powers assemble to avenge their grievances against the United States. Without signing any treaty, without issuing any joint communique, and without forging any coordinated strategy, Iran, China, Russia, and Pakistan, all develop a shared interest in exposing the U.S. in Afghanistan to a thousand cuts, week after week.
For years, the U.S. has marked out Iran as the country that sponsors “international terrorism.” U.S. sponsored economic sanctions strangle the Iranian standard of living. Iran has been looking for opportunities to get even with the U.S. For many years, Iran has soundlessly supported the Taliban and other regional militants to wound the U.S. forces operating in Afghanistan. Sharing a lengthy border with Afghanistan, Iran has unlimited optionality to reinforce the militants fighting the U.S.
China, perhaps the shrewdest country on the planet, has not sent armed forces to Afghanistan. Nor does China assist local militants with weapons. China employs the development card to unseat the U.S. from Afghanistan. The people of Afghanistan hear the message that while the U.S. is destroying their country in the name of liberty and democracy, China will improve their lives regardless of the form of government, including the Taliban rule. Strategically, China has every interest in seeing a fully disgraced U.S. bleed in Afghanistan.
In contradistinction to China, Russia has every reason to see the U.S. writhe, and suffer nakedly, in Afghanistan. The Russian support for the Afghan militants fighting the U.S. is extensive and unceasing. For Russia the memories are still fresh how the United States unleashed “jihad” against the Soviet forces that occupied Afghanistan in 1979. Even if President Trump had reset the US-Russia relations, Russia could not have spared the opportunity to get even with the U.S. in the same battlefield, Afghanistan, where Russia was thoroughly humiliated. Russia is known to be unforgiving and revengeful.
Pakistan will play the most effective role in seeing that the U.S. is mired in Afghanistan, partly because the U.S. is divorcing Pakistan to marry India, a huge U.S. put down for Pakistan’s otherwise thoroughly pro-American ruling elites. Furthermore, Pakistan, now protected by China, will not enter the Afghan war under any U.S. pressure. Pakistan will allow its airspace and territory to be used for the influx of the U.S. forces and equipment into Afghanistan. Pakistan is the most convenient and the cheapest route for the U.S. access to Afghanistan. The U.S. will be forced to end its war in Afghanistan if Pakistan refuses to provide logistical resources. Pakistan will not close its airspace or territory for the U.S. forces primarily because Pakistan makes money for this service.
History often provides a justificatory context for starting a war and then vanishes in the background to witness nations trapped in armed conflict.
India, a budding U.S. ally in the region, also reaps economic and diplomatic benefits if the U.S. is jammed in a fruitless war in Afghanistan. The U.S. establishment foolishly believes that India can counterbalance other regional powers. India has no will or ability to weaken the enclave of Iran, China, Russia, and Pakistan, each avenging its own grievances and pursuing national objectives. Most importantly, India does not care if the U.S. bleeds profusely in Afghanistan.
In sum, all regional powers, Iran, China, Russia, Pakistan, and India, crave for the U.S. to remain trapped in Afghanistan and face bloodbaths, in addition to burning billions of tax dollars. In this big geopolitical game, the U.S. has no chance of winning the war while the unfortunate Afghans will suffer huge losses for even more years to come.