Today's Editorial

18 January 2017

Why the US cannot quit Afghanistan


Source: Vinod Saighal: The Statesman


To find an answer for the above proposition it is essential to go back a century when Britannia ruled the waves. The heartland hypothesis was enunciated by Sir Halford Mackinder in 1904. This theory regards political history as a continuous struggle between land and sea powers with the ultimate victory going to the continental power. He predicted: “Whoever rules East Europe, will rule Heartlandwhoever rules the Heartland, will rule the World Island. Whoever rules the World Island, will rule the world.”

During World War II, Mackinder’s theory was put to the test. The Heartland (or pivot area) could have become the focus of power if either Russia had united with Germany or Russia had been overthrown according to some analysts of the period. Today the heartland is controlled by Russia and China, the latter gradually overtaking the predominance of the former. The US, NATO and the West have absolutely no role to play in the heartland as the world moves into 1917.

It is the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) of which India and Pakistan have recently become members that holds sway over Central Asia. A fillip to the SCO was given by the US moving into Afghanistan with bases in the Central Asian Republics after the 9/11 attacks on the US mainland. China is now taking full advantage by pushing its most important OBOR (One Belt One Road) through the heartland at a cost that could ultimately go beyond one trillion dollars as per some estimates.

The Afghan war is well into its sixteenth year. Its end is still unpredictable. Washington will try to ensure that whoever it allows to come to power in Kabul is neither pro-Iranian nor pro-Russian. By having a military presence whose numbers remain flexible, Washington is able to ensure that no other major power in the region is able to station troops.

A clear divergence of interests exists, which continues to further aggravate the situation. While it cannot continue to fight the war indefinitely, leaving Afghanistan wide open to interests that are or could become inimical to the US is something that the U.S. might not be able to countenance. In a testimony to the House Armed Services Committee, Gen. John Campbell was reported to have said, “Afghanistan is at an inflection point” and it could easily explode into the worst possible scenario than the U.S. might have hitherto faced.

In a few days a new US administration will be faced with the Afghan imbroglio where numerous US lives have been lost and enormous sums have been expended. At this stage nobody can predict with any degree of certainty as to how Donald Trump and his team comprising old security hands who have been dealing with the Afghanistan-Pakistan (Af-Pak) region since long will proceed.

The Obama White House, while it may have appeared tenuous about its policy in West Asia did not pull out of Afghanistan as had been stated by the President at a famous speech at West Point where he set a time limit for the Afghan pullout – end 2014. Looking afresh at the situation in Central and West Asia the incoming president would not be unmindful of the fact that Russia, Turkey and Iran have sidelined the US in Syria and Iraq.

Having been ousted from Central Asia and marginalized in West Asia the new administration would take a very hard look at Afghanistan; and what they see would not seem reassuring. China, Russia and Pakistan have come together to engage with the Taliban for reaching an accommodation with Kabul. It is uncertain as to how it will play out. The US and UK that was earlier in the forefront for a dialogue with the Taliban has been left out. There is strong likelihood of Iran joining the three powers that are not only attempting to bring the Taliban into the fold, they would be looking ahead to shape the future of Afghanistan and bring it solidly into the SCO fold.

The US is not part of this process nor is India.  Mr. Trump might not like it one bit. It should be recalled that even while President Obama announced troop reductions and eventual pullout, the US actually added a few more bases on the ground. The Pentagon planners evidently had no doubt about the continued importance of remaining in Afghanistan. Mr. Trump in all likelihood would endorse that line.

It affords US the ability to keep an eye on China, Iran, Central Asian Republics and Pakistan. In the last case the US would be able to monitor the situation developing in Baluchistan, the Chinese build up in Gwadar and the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) linking Kashgar to Gwadar; a 46 billion dollar project that is unlikely to sit well with USA. Neither is India comfortable with Chinese troops immersing themselves so deeply in the Northern Areas of J&K, territory claimed by India, presently under Pakistan occupation.

The new US administration would also look askance at large Chinese troop deployment for protecting CPEC in areas that are relatively close to the Afghan border. Further more in a recent pronouncement President-elect Trump is said to have stated that Pakistan was today the most dangerous and unstable country in the world. Pakistan television debated the implications of the statement that made several of the speakers shudder. 

Pakistan has been declared a bigger menace than Iran that does not yet have a nuclear capability. Pakistan’s growing nuclear arsenal has been a big worry for all US administrations. Many overlooked it. Not so Mr. Donald Trump. Neither North Korea nor Iran has the global reach of radicalized Sunni Islam to cause destruction and mayhem almost anywhere in the world. The most likely source of nuclear weapons for non-sate actors remains Pakistan. Among others it becomes the most important reason for the US remaining in Afghanistan till this strongest threat to the global equilibrium is neutralized.


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