In a few months, the U.S. will observe the ten year anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks. This anniversary is a clear reminder that al-Qaeda and their co-conspirators, the Taliban, will not hesitate to harm freedom loving civilians. We see the evidence of al-Qaeda and the Taliban’s acts across Afghanistan on a daily basis. Last month alone, more than 300 civilians were slaughtered by the Taliban, using vulnerable young minds to carry out their barbaric homicide-bombings.
In the days following the September terrorist attacks, one of the main goals in America’s war on terrorism had been to cut off the Taliban regime and other states that harbor terrorist groups from the rest of the world. Ten years later, with much sacrifice in life and treasure, these goals have mixed results. While the Taliban no longer rule Afghanistan, Pakistan not only harbors terrorist groups but has excelled to become a major exporter of terrorism. Faizal Shahzad, the failed Times Square bomber is a clear example of Pakistan’s willingness to allow terrorism cultivation on its soil and in turn to use terrorism as a strategic and foreign policy tool. Though, Pakistan is not the only country in the region calculating a strategic outlook. The U.S. military presence in Afghanistan has unsettled its neighbors, Iran, China and regional powers, such as Russia.
Earlier this year, a leading Republican lawmaker on U.S. military policy said that he wants American officials to consider establishing permanent military bases in Afghanistan. Sen. Lindsay Graham of South Carolina said: “having a few U.S. air bases in Afghanistan would be a benefit to the region and would give Afghan security forces an edge against the Taliban.”
A majority of Afghans couldn’t agree more with Senator Graham. His idea has opened up a debate, not only amongst U.S policymakers but, more importantly among many Afghans. Even Afghan senior officials seem to have accepted the indefinite presence of American troops in their country within a comprehensive long term strategic compact. The question then becomes: what are the ramifications of a long term US military presence in Afghanistan?
From Afghanistan’s perspective:
First, it’s clear that the U.S & Afghan military operations have yielded a degree of success ever since Gen. Petraeus has taking command of the coalition forces in Afghanistan. While military progress is admirable, Afghanistan is politically broke. For example: the reconciliation process through the High Peace Council shows little credibility in channeling peace. Since the Council has no mandate from the Afghan people, and it has mainly been hand-picked by Mr. Karzai, any negotiated settlement will not have permanence.
Second, on numerous occasions, the Afghan government and US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton have offered the Taliban an olive branch, to lay down their arms, accept the Afghan Constitution and participate in the political process. Nonetheless, the Taliban have proven that they are unreformed and behaved in a manner favoring Pakistan’s interests rather than helping rebuild Afghanistan.
Third, with the majority of Taliban being ethnic Pashtun and Pashtuns are compiling 40% of Afghanistan’s demographic, other minorities that make up the remaining 60% of Afghanistan question what the Taliban are fighting for, if not for Pakistan’s interests? Therefore, if Pakistan’s strategy is the main catalyst of the Afghan war, then it’s safe to assume that the announcement of permanent US bases in Afghanistan may inadvertently bring a shift in Pakistan’s strategy. Permanent U.S. bases may convince Pakistan to honestly and genuinely help NATO and Afghanistan achieve sustainable peace and in the process allow Pakistan to once again become an honest member of the world nations.
From the United States perspective:
There is no secret that Afghanistan has an important geo-strategic location. It neighbors China in the North-East and Iran in the West. Russia and India loom in the background. The aftermath of the September 11th terrorist attacks taught us a lesson on the importance of geo-strategy— then Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had great difficulty enlisting support in Central Asia for the U.S. anti-terror operation against Osama bin Laden and the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Last year’s Pentagon report, “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China,” suggests China wants to establish itself as a dominant regional power before claiming a larger global role. The Chinese military, according to the Pentagon, is pursuing “anti-access and area denial strategies” in its corner of the world with respect to potential rivals like Japan, South Korea and the United States. In part, this means being prepared to keep U.S. and other foreign military forces as far from China as possible.
Iran is another hemorrhoid in the region. With an unflinching desire to acquire nuclear weapons and an obsessive goal to be preeminent in the region, America’s proactive strategies may make the Supreme leader think twice. Iran isn’t oblivious: they are tooling ignorant Afghan mullahs who act as their agents to preach against a long term U.S. military presence in Afghanistan. These mullahs use Friday religious sermons to convey Iran’s political messages.
With few honest friends in that region, and a 21st century foreign policy guided by engagement, it will be a monumental mistake for the United States to depart Afghanistan without inking a comprehensive long term presence that will mutually benefit Afghans with their deterrence policy and allow the US to regain its image as the universal custodian of peace.
Wahid Monawar is former Chief of Staff of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Afghanistan, Former Permanent Representative of Afghanistan to the United Nations in Vienna, and the founder of the Neo-Conservative Party of Afghanistan. He is currently an associate of Zurich Partners.