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.

Unfortunately, after making a strong case for India’s security interests in Afghanistan, the Indians made their costly pitch: the U.S. must continue its role as the lead military power in the war-torn country. India would “support” continued intervention and nation-building by Washington, but did not offer to participate in combat operations. This highlighted the basic problem in U.S. policy. America has spent nearly 18 years fighting on the far side of the planet against what is really only a very low-level threat to its security. Meanwhile, local powers have taken a back seat even though they have much more at stake; they face threats that truly deserve the overused term “existential.”

The Afghan mission didn’t just creep, it jumped from retaliation against the Taliban regime and al-Qaeda for the 9/11 attacks, to long term nation-building. Costs grew in both blood and treasure as the U.S. tried to not only keep a small, poor and remote land from being used by terrorists, but to bring American-style democracy to villages that supported Pashtun nationalism and still thought they were fighting the Soviets. And, Afghanistan was (and is) far from being the only place terrorists can use to launch attacks on the American homeland.

The 2018 Fragile State Index issued by the Fund for Peace places Afghanistan 9th on its list. Nigeria, plagued by Boko Haram, is 14th. Pakistan rates 20th and Iran is 52nd. The number of problematic actors is very large. The global map shows an arc of crisis, extending from Central Asia through the Middle East into Africa. Much of this area is Islamic, and could provide vast opportunities for jihadists to shelter and organize. The Islamic State, which has inspired terrorist attacks in America, did not originate in Afghanistan. The United States cannot possibly occupy every trouble spot around the globe to combat terrorism. Unlike in other parts of the world, there is no insurgent army ready to move in to seize American territory or overthrow our government.

Terrorism must still be addressed because its leaders want to inflict massive casualties on Americans to intimidate and break national will. Experience indicates, however, that Americans respond strongly to direct attacks, but become “war weary” from long campaigns that generate disproportionate costs. American strategists have unwisely prolonged the short-term expedient of using U.S. forces in a crisis rather than train local forces for the long-term needs of counterinsurgency and local security. Afghanistan stands out as a particularly inept example. After eight years of failed nation-building, there was a surge of U.S. troops into the country in 2010, increasing their number to 100,000, the highest level of the entire campaign. And yet, the other half of a decisive campaign, the elimination of Taliban safe havens, was left undone: Pakistan remains a sanctuary from which the insurgency can be sustained indefinitely. American strategists are not following the lessons of the Vietnam War.

Even when local forces are built up over a long period, there has been a reluctance to trust them to defend their own lands. Afghan troops have improved. Special Forces are showing the warrior spirit for which the Afghan people are known. New Territorial units are being deployed to protect their own homes. A growing air force has capabilities the Taliban cannot match. The Northern Alliance remains resolute. Still, Kabul only controls about two-thirds of the country. It is time to accept that it is their fight.

On July 29, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that President Donald Trump wants all U.S. troops out of Afghanistan before the 2020 election. He then backtracked on this statement two days later, saying there was no deadline for withdrawal. However, he confirmed that “The president has been very direct about his expectations that we will reduce our operational footprint on the ground in Afghanistan just as quickly as we can get there.” Currently 14,000 American military personnel are deployed in Afghanistan and talk has been that their number would soon be cut in half.

As the withdrawal takes place it will become incumbent upon local powers to protect their interests. Those who face the greatest risks should mobilize the greatest efforts to defeat them. India is the key, for which the Trump administration has been working to improve security ties. In 2018, India hosted the inaugural 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue in New Delhi, led by the U.S. Secretaries of State and Defense, and the Indian Ministers of External Affairs and Defense. The meeting affirmed the importance of India’s designation as a Major Defense Partner of the United States. This heightened status allows India to buy more advanced weapons and gain access to more technology on a par with NATO allies. Washington needs to do more than just sell equipment to India; it must help the country build a defense industrial base that can put in on a competitive basis with its local adversaries.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi wants to increase foreign direct investment in the Indian defense industry as part of his ambitious “Make in India” project to encourage investment by both foreign and domestic companies. By 2020, he hopes that 70 percent of India’s weapons will be built domestically. The U.S. should cooperate in this endeavor to deepen both economic and strategic ties with this emerging giant. New Delhi should be seen as a partner, not merely a customer.

India has tried to keep Afghanistan independent from Pakistan since these contending states were formed. Pakistan was founded as an Islamic state with the mission to unite all Muslims in the region, including Afghanistan and Kashmir. The Afghan ruler, King Zahir Shah, initially refused to recognize the creation of Pakistan in 1947, fearing its ambitions. India backed Kabul and has continued to work to keep the country out of Pakistan’s grasp. This was true even when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan during the Cold War. India aligned itself with Moscow as Pakistan backed insurgents seeking to liberate the country in favor of its own control. As Professor Nasreen Akhtar of International Islamic University recently stated in regard to the civil war that followed the withdrawal of the Soviets, “Pakistan being a ‘front door’ neighbour supported the Taliban regime and successfully undermined the role of regional power, and rival, India.” New Delhi gave support to the Northern Alliance, the main opponent of the Taliban and the force the U.S. turned to when it intervened after 9/11.

After 9/11, according to Akhtar, “India astutely played the card of ‘terrorism’ against Pakistan and convinced Afghanistan and the US that India would play its role in reconstructing war zone Afghanistan. Consequently, the post-Taliban environment was constructed by the US and India to undermine the role of Pakistan and its strong regional ally, China,” he wrote. “India’s role is increasing in Afghanistan because the US, against the wishes of Pakistan, has encouraged India to assume a greater role in the security and stability of Afghanistan which is not in Pakistan’s interest.”

India has engaged in a number of development efforts with a mixture of high visibility projects for influence and strategic infrastructure projects to strengthen Afghan independence. India has also contributed equipment and training for Afghan police and military forces. However, New Delhi has been reluctant to commit “boots on the ground” beyond some small contingents to guard offices and construction sites. There is no direct land connection between India and Afghanistan. The logistical miracle that allowed the U.S. and NATO to operate in Afghanistan depended on the cooperation of Pakistan, which has often been uncertain or even hostile. This difficult arrangement will not be available for Indian forces.

India will have to depend on deterrence based on a credible threat of devastating retaliation and escalation dominance for any Pakistani actions that endanger its security interests. The air battles and other combat operations between India and Pakistan last February indicate that New Delhi is willing to retaliate against terrorist attacks launched from Pakistan. The four major Indo-Pakistan wars (1947, 1965, 1971, 1999) have all been started by Pakistani ground attacks across the border; with the tensions of persistent conflict maintained by terrorism between major clashes.

What is needed is a strategy of “punitive expeditions”, a term used by the British when they policed the north-west frontier of the Raj. It is akin to the “hit and run” warfare of guerrillas. The aim is to demonstrate to enemies the futility of their efforts. Punitive operations may require taking the war to the enemy on the ground in a more comprehensive manner than air strikes. The adversary’s infrastructure must be crippled; hidden arsenals destroyed; leaders tracked down, captured or killed. But the end game is not occupation. The immense territory and intensity of grass roots resistance from a population the size of Pakistan’s would make any effort to hold ground far too costly even without the danger of escalation to the nuclear level. The purpose is punishment for bad behavior on a scale beyond the calculations of any rational regime. Given the intensity of the rivalry on the sub-continent, what constitutes rational behavior may, however, involve violence on a high and sustained level to make the point.

In punitive expeditions, the costs of reconstruction are to be left to the enemy. Israel’s experience against Hezbollah and Hamas can be instructive. India is a ready student. The precision weapons it used against the terrorist bases in Pakistan on February 25 were of Israeli design. Last September, Washington and New Delhi signed the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement paving the way for India to acquire advanced weapons, military equipment and related technology. Upgrading India’s airpower and missile defenses are top priorities, but its ground and naval forces deserve attention as well. The U.S. and India face two threats in common: Islamic extremism and Chinese expansion, both of which come together in Pakistan, which sponsors terrorism, and is close with China.

India is not the only power in the region with a fear of a jihadist Afghan regime. Russia worries that its former Central Asian provinces will fall prey to militants who will bear a grudge against Moscow for the decades it spent suppressing Islam. Moscow has been happy to see the U.S. pinned down in Afghanistan. Yet, it has also benefited from the shield the American coalition has placed between the terrorists and the lands further north. Russia had previously given aid to the Northern Alliance for the same purpose. An American withdrawal will remove that shield and force Russia to bolster its vigilance to the south.

Russia was a founding member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO)   in June 2001. The ex-USSR Muslim states of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan were also in at the start. A major purpose of the organization is “to promote cooperation of member states against the three evils of terrorismseparatism  and extremism.” It is a little late for Russia to worry about separatism. It is, however, a major concern of China, which it links with Islamic “terrorism” in Xinjiang province.  While on paper the SCO is a powerful organization for military cooperation, it is not an alliance per se, and there are geopolitical divisions that make it unlikely to be cohesive in a crisis as it is founded on China-Russia cooperation. These countries have too many conflicting interests to be long-term allies. Both India and Pakistan became members in 2015, and they are frequently close to blows. The many cross-ties and rival alignments within the SCO give a false ring to the joint commitment for stability and peace. All oppose “jihad” as a rogue factor; but they also know that state-supported covert violence has its uses.

Washington’s myopia about stopping terrorism by occupying Afghanistan has blinded its policy-makers to the wider, more complex nature of South Asia; a region that presents opportunities as well as risks. Jihadists are not America’s only or even most dangerous adversaries, nor is America the only society they attack. This means two things. First, America does not have to carry the burden of counter-terrorism alone. Indeed, it can step back from conflicts where other powers have an even greater reason to fight. That is clearly the case in Afghanistan which will continue to play a much larger role in regional politics than it will in American affairs following a U.S. withdrawal.

The outrage Americans felt in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks was real and justified. Devastating retaliation against al-Qaeda and those aligned with it were called for and carried out. But these actions do not change the fact that terrorism is the tactic of the weak. Though the casualties suffered in New York City were on the scale of those suffered at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, there was no surge of enemy conquests across vast areas like Japan conducted. Al-Qaeda was not a major power. Osama bin Laden wanted to change the face of the Middle East by driving out the United States. But his resources fell far short of his ambitions. He was killed by Navy SEALs in Pakistan; the kind of small-scale punitive action that is far more cost effective than decades of occupation in turbulent foreign lands. The end of American occupation does not mean the end of power projection or support for local allies who are better positioned to suppress radical movements. Indeed, al-Qaeda launched the 9/11 attacks because it believed this alliance of U.S. and local authorities was why their revolution was failing.

This leads to the second point. The most dangerous kind of terrorism is state-supported, where national resources can be used to cover and reinforce the work of fanatics who can be used to pave the way for conquest. Unlike rogue jihadists, these threats can change the balance of power in a region and trigger major conflicts. The U.S. must encourage, arm and subsidize local allies to prevail in these regional contests while building up its own high-end forces to maintain escalation dominance and a favorable balance of power against major rivals. An aspect of such a “layered defense” that needs to be recognized is that other states have their own security needs that can be leveraged to strengthen American leadership without overtaxing U.S. resources or undermining national will in the eternal labor of international politics. In a vast and dangerous world, the United States, as its preeminent power, can do what it needs to do to protect its interests; but it doesn’t have to do everything, everywhere.

William R. Hawkins is a consultant specializing in international economic and national security issues.