Withdrawing from Afghanistan, Without Leaving a Vacuum

Journal of Political Risk, Vol. 7, No. 8, August 2019

By William R. Hawkins

Foreign Minister of Uzbekistan, Abdulaziz Kamilov (L3), Foreign Minister of India Sushma Swaraj (C), Foreign Minister of Tajikistan Sirojiddin Muhriddin (R2), Foreign Minister of Kyrgyzstan Chingiz Aidarbekov (L2), Foreign Minsiter of Turkmenistan Rashid Meredov (R), Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Kazakhstan Beibut Atamkulov (L) and Foreign Minister of Afghanistan Salahuddin Rabbani (R3) participate in the ‘Ministerial Meeting of the India-Central Asia-Afghanistan Dialogue’ held within the ‘India-Central Asia Dialogue’ Foreign Ministers’ meeting in Samarkand, Uzbekistan on January 13, 2019.
(Photo by Bahtiyar Abdukerimov/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Some years ago, I spent an afternoon in New Delhi meeting with a group of retired senior members of India’s military and intelligence communities. A central topic was Afghanistan. The Indians were adamant that the Taliban must not be allowed to take over the country. They saw the Taliban as agents of Pakistan. The absorption of Afghanistan by the Islamabad regime would pose a threat to India. Afghanistan would be a rich recruiting ground for the terrorist/insurgent forces Pakistan uses to destabilize Kashmir. And in case of another open war, Afghanistan would give Islamabad “strategic depth” which could be used in several possible ways.

The Islamabad-Kashmir area is at the narrowest part of Pakistan. It’s only 228 miles from Islamabad to Kabul. But the terrain is bad to the west and Pakistan has more important areas to defend to the south. Even so, pulling troops back to Peshawar, where they could be supplied/reinforced from Afghanistan, could serve as a counter-attack force if Islamabad was under siege. Pakistan has an arsenal of mobile short and medium-range ballistic missiles with conventional warheads and is adding cruise missiles. However, only some of these models could reach India if redeployed to Afghanistan to avoid preemption. More attractive would be Afghan airbases which could support Pakistani operations along the northern border but at a distance that would make it harder for Indian airstrikes to suppress. During the February clash, Pakistan intercepted Indian airstrikes in the Kashmir area and shot down two fighters, including an F-16. Deeper airstrikes could be problematical for New Delhi.

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