America’s Afghan Mission Has Been Overtaken by Pandemic
The hill at Gandamak, where the British 44th East Essex Regiment formed a ragged square and died with its boots on after the “security situation” collapsed in 1842, is still littered with British bones. It is a lesson for would-be rulers in Afghanistan: Take nothing for granted, don’t get tied to internal politics, and be able to get out if things come apart.
Barnett Rubin and Sultan Barakat have made a heartfelt plea in these pages to save the U.S. deal for a settlement in Afghanistan, echoing Rubin’s suggestions for a peace settlement in Foreign Policy. Unwittingly, however, these articles make a compelling argument against further involvement.
Since the deal, the Taliban have already resumed attacks, U.S. forces slated for withdrawal are sheltering in place from COVID-19 even as more troop rotations are contemplated, and the security and political situations have deteriorated. Whether or not the deal is still meaningful, the pandemic and recession mean the United States is going to have to make good on its withdrawal from Afghanistan, both militarily and in its political involvement. It must conserve its resources for its domestic situation and geopolitical competition yet to come, and safeguard its forces from increased risk and threat.
It’s Not Afghanistan’s Year
COVID-19 is only going to throw gasoline on an already raging fire. At present, Afghanistan’s legitimate government is on the verge of infighting: President Ashraf Ghani and his opponent in the last election, Abdullah Abdullah, are disputing its result in the midst of a pandemic, with Taliban attacks escalating and Afghan forces attrited, defecting, and in retreat. Meanwhile, insider attacks against Afghans and Americans are spiking among Afghan security forces. Ironically, Afghan refugees in COVID-devastated Iran are now re-entering an unprepared Afghanistan en masse. Afghanistan has few recorded COVID-19 cases, but this is due to poor testing; half the country may already be infected. The Taliban have exploited the situation for political purposes, blaming the Afghan government while offering medical aid to civilians and accelerating attacks in hard-hit provinces. Their refusal to adopt a Ramadan ceasefire offers further discouragement.
Barakat and Rubin focus on Afghanistan’s ongoing internal peace process and take a neutral approach. In an effort to show the way forward, they attempt to move each side’s pieces in at least a three-way chess game. Thus, “Ghani and Abdullah could show leadership by setting aside the issues between them;” the United States will then resume currently reduced aid; the Taliban will drop reservations about starting negotiations; the Taliban should stop killing Afghan forces (!) — all in the name of stopping the war to fight the pandemic.
This is wishful thinking. There is no track record of the Taliban honoring long-term ceasefires, let alone this past month, and their exploitation of the pandemic and unwillingness to consider a Ramadan truce speaks for itself. There is, in fact, no track record at all of negotiation between the Taliban and the Afghan government, despite more than a decade of calls for it. The last time the Taliban negotiated with other Afghans, as opposed to an outside power, was Ahmad Shah Massoud’s overture to them in 1995. The Taliban were famously intransigent and won control of the country on the battlefield a year later. It is telling that the recent prisoner exchange, which the Taliban had demanded as a precursor for talks, did not result in a Taliban commitment to come to the table. Though there are signs that at least a short-term power-sharing deal may be reached, making it last will require sustained involvement. The last time the United States had to knock heads between Abdullah and Ghani was in 2014, and reaching agreement required a sustained highest-level effort by a U.S. Secretary of State during a period when spare time and resources existed.
As to resources, it is time to examine Rubin’s argument in Foreign Policy.
Rubin’s argument entails essentially four points. First, Afghanistan is dependent on aid for the survival of its regime. Second, the withdrawal of U.S. aid in response to infighting between Ghani and Abdullah can force some sanity on its opposing factions. Third, Russia and China are already competing with the United States for influence in Afghanistan, necessitating U.S. engagement. And finally, cooperation between Russia, China, the United States, Iran, and Pakistan stands a chance of resolving Afghanistan’s internal conflict and engendering further cooperation among them.
Creative though this reasoning is, it fails to make the case. To the first two points: where Afghanistan’s need for aid is concerned, the United States might increase aid to Afghanistan for humanitarian reasons, even while withdrawing – but withdrawal of aid is no more likely to instill long-term sanity than any other failed measure. In particular, the ‘Abdullah-Ghani split reflects a longstanding Tajik-Pashtun divide with roots in the structure of Afghanistan’s violent politics and history itself; it may be plastered over but will always be there.
As for the remaining points, attention to Afghanistan expends scarce political capital amidst a dire domestic situation. A Twitter comment that the United States can get a missile on target in Afghanistan but cannot deliver a ventilator to an American hospital sums up the situation well. When competing for political and media attention, Afghanistan loses out to almost any other possible agenda item. A little aid is one thing, but sustained involvement in Afghanistan’s peace process is another.
Afghanistan has very little intrinsic value for U.S. interests. Its perceived importance stems from an outdated strategic view of America’s battle with Sunni jihadism, a moral plea to justify American sacrifices there, and a belief that U.S. credibility would be damaged by withdrawal.
Regarding strategy, it is often said that the United States must remain in Afghanistan to prevent it from reverting to a base for Sunni jihadists. This thinking is a decade out of date. As a potential terrorist haven, Afghanistan will scarcely be different from Iraq, Syria, or Libya, each of which is — by geography — more strategically vital for fighting Salafi jihadism.
The moral problem is tragic, but can no longer be changed. Veterans tend to regard the war as a mistake. Whatever the case, there is little left to do after two decades of war, and patriotic American servicemembers are better served by a change of priorities.
Where U.S. credibility is concerned, a story from World War II, recounted by Brian Farrell in The Defence and Fall of Singapore, comes to mind: following the Japanese invasion of Malaya after Pearl Harbor, the British forces there were pushed back to Singapore and besieged. With water and ammunition running out, their commander, Gen. Sir Arthur Percival, held a council of war to consider surrendering. When urged to do so, he objected, “There are other things to consider. I have my honor to consider!” His disgusted subordinate, Lt. Gen. Sir Lewis Heath, replied, “You need not bother about your honor — you lost that a long time ago.”
In Afghanistan, the United States need not bother about its honor; it lost that years ago. The credibility damage that the United States would take from leaving Afghanistan is already “priced in” to others’ assessments. By contrast, ending a fruitless war demonstrates that the United States takes its foreign policy seriously and is cognizant of the bigger challenges it faces. As David Fromkin wrote regarding the withdrawal of great powers from wars in his commentary on Kosovo, Kosovo Crossing, “ [I]n warfare and in politics as in life, if you find that you are doing the wrong thing, it is best to stop doing it. You may receive credit for perseverance…but little credit for intelligence.”
This is particularly true if, as above, U.S. allies — in the midst of a resource-sapping pandemic — begin to wonder if the United States has anything left for them in a crisis, particularly given how strung-out Afghanistan actually leaves the United States, particularly as China funds them and offers them aid. Priorities matter, and are seen to matter.
Overtaken By Geopolitics
In view of this, Rubin’s contention that Russian and Chinese involvement in Afghanistan entails the need for U.S. engagement is darkly comical. It is as if the United States were asked to forget the old adage that if one’s friends jump off a bridge, one need not follow. It also ignores the possibility that regional powers’ interests in Afghanistan may be uniquely theirs; the U.S. is not a regional power and has options and other needs that regional powers lack. Quite apart from this, Rubin flip-flops on the core issue: If the United States must involve itself further in a Groundhog Day-esque peace process because its geopolitical competitors are doing so, it should not expect — as Rubin suggests — that this, of all issues, will lead to deeper collaboration between what are now sworn adversaries. The idea that Russia, China, Pakistan, Iran, and the United States will closely cooperate to bring about peace in Afghanistan is tragically far-fetched. Both the broader picture and the regional interplay between the United States, India, Pakistan, and China (let alone Iran or Russia) argue for reduced involvement, not more.
In broad terms, getting out of Afghanistan would refocus U.S. allies’ policies. In the face of alarming Russian military modernization, including the stand-up of enormous Russian armored formations, there is a crying need for U.S. allies to reshape their militaries away from peacekeeping and towards conventional deterrence. Not only does a withdrawal from Afghanistan allow European militaries to reprogram (very) scarce defense resources, but the withdrawal of the United States signals, in essence, that their top alliance partner is necessarily resetting the policy agenda.
In region, meanwhile, the United States is engaged in overdue outreach to India as a counterweight to the Chinese challenge in the Indian Ocean. This necessitates that the United States has a freer hand with Pakistan — India’s main security threat and a collaborator with China — than it currently does, given the need to cooperate with Pakistan in Afghanistan. This is particularly the case given Pakistan’s toleration of, and sometimes support for, Sunni jihadists in Afghanistan and elsewhere. This problem does not entirely disappear upon U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. Certain requirements, such as whatever counter-terrorism cooperation can be achieved, remain. However, in general, it is better that the United States need less from Pakistan on any given day.
Iran — with which the United States is close to a shooting war, and which it will not offer relief from sanctions even amidst a pandemic — probably does not bear further discussion. Even if the United States somehow changed its relationship with Iran, which has some uses in fighting Sunni jihadists, it should not expect favors from Iran in Afghanistan, or waste political capital trying to get them.
China, meanwhile, has long sought to exploit U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. While the United States has provided security in Afghanistan, China has acquired mineral rights there. Thus far, most of these projects have stalled due to poor security and infrastructure. Even so, it makes sense to end a de facto subsidy to a U.S. geopolitical rival, particularly one that would actually grow if the United States somehow achieved its aims. Essentially, all that has prevented China from exploiting Afghanistan’s mineral wealth has been the U.S. failure to secure it. Meanwhile, China benefits from the diversion of the U.S. military’s attention away from the Pacific and conventional warfare preparation. A U.S. withdrawal is regarded as a potential net negative for China, which may of itself argue in favor.
Worse, though, is the potential for escalating proxy warfare with Russia or even China via Pakistan. With China and Pakistan closely cooperating, and with Pakistan remaining a historical backer of the Taliban, in the absence of the usefulness of Afghan mineral concessions, other, more disturbing, potential policies for their relationship to U.S. forces in Afghanistan open up. With no prospect of an improved security situation, the United States has arguably outlived its usefulness to China where Afghanistan is concerned. It may be far-fetched, but one hopes the Chinese equivalent of the famous Rep. Charlie Wilson is currently otherwise occupied. Russia may already have ideas: Its engagement with the Taliban extends to accusations of arms distribution. Far from cooperating with Eurasian powers to bring peace to Afghanistan, the United States is at risk of getting caught in a crossfire — or in someone’s sights.
U.S. Forces At Risk
The risk of American forces being cut off by escalating insurgent activity is becoming real because of the inherent problems of the Afghanistan deployment. Afghanistan is among the hardest places in the world for the United States to deploy forces: It is a landlocked country on the opposite side of the world, with forbidding geography and primitive transportation infrastructure. There is a reason the war is so expensive even relative to the small number of troops (about 13,000, to go to 8600 under the deal if it is followed) that the United States has had there.
Those troops are at the end of a perilously thin, patched-together supply line, so fragile that allegations surfaced around 2010 of bribes being paid to the Taliban to allow free passage of supply contractors who otherwise could not operate. If the line is cut — in particular if Afghan security forces defect or come apart — American forces are stranded. Getting help to them in such a crisis, which would require the United States to reinforce its forces or withdraw them under fire, would be a nightmare given everything the United States is currently dealing with. The risks of something going wrong increase, rather than decrease, with so few American forces in theater and a deteriorating political situation.
Worse, the main supply route for U.S. forces in Afghanistan runs through Pakistan, with which the United States must, for that reason, maintain good relations — a problem for all the aforementioned reasons. On at least one occasion, Pakistan has shut off logistics to make a point; notably, when it closed its border to U.S. logistics in 2011 after a border dust-up in which the United States mistakenly killed Pakistani forces. Pakistan has U.S. logistics by the jugular at a time when it has effectively teamed up with China.
Historically, the back-up supply route for U.S. forces in Afghanistan, opened during the 2011 border closure, was the so-called Northern Distribution Network. It ran via Russia and Russian-influenced territory, and Russia closed it in 2015, as U.S.-Russian relations soured over Ukraine. A future Pakistan logistics crisis would put the United States in a position of having to renegotiate for the reopening of the Northern Distribution Network, if it were even possible. For obvious reasons, it is better not to have to worry about this.
The advent of COVID-19 and substantial state restrictions worldwide on movement and transport — and especially on large gatherings — increases the risk that some key link in the logistics chain will be disrupted by policy. U.S. forces are currently sheltering in place from COVID-19, but even that might have to change if they can no longer rely on their supply lines. At most, it means the withdrawal timetable is complicated, not that the imperative does not exist.
It is time to go.
Williamson Murray has noted that the global environment for a great power can change in five- or ten-year increments. Ten years, at the dawn of the 20th century, was enough time for Britain to go from an opponent of France to an ally of France against Germany, and from an unchallenged hegemon to a beleaguered competitor. A similar timeframe spanned America’s transformation from isolationist bystander to World War II-victor and leader of the free world. Twenty years, then, is an impossibly long time for the United States to be involved in the same project. It is time to find a new one. There are many to choose from.
Martin Skold holds a Ph.D. in international relations from the University of St. Andrews, where his thesis focused on the strategy of great power competition. He most recently served as campaign manager and chief policy adviser to former Massachusetts Governor Bill Weld’s presidential primary campaign. Previously, he was legislative assistant for foreign policy to Rep. Paul Ryan in 2011, at the height of the Arab Spring and the U.S. fiscal crisis. These are his own views, and not those of anybody he has ever worked for — though he’d be grateful for some overlap.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article referred to Senator Charlie Wilson. That was incorrect. Charlie Wilson was a member of the House of Representatives, not the Senate.