Why the only face-saving way out for the US is a complete military withdrawal from Afghanistan

Published: August 12, 2017

An Afghan boy looks at US soldiers as they patrol a village near the town of Makkor, southwest of Kabul, April 20, 2007. PHOTO: REUTERS

To quote the Chinese proverb,

“He who seeks vengeance must dig two graves – one for his enemy and one for himself.”

Afghanistan is in a state of utter chaos. Unless there is a drastic change in the current Afghan strategy, this proverbial ‘graveyard of empires’ seems set to add the United States in the list of countries that failed to control this area.

Donald Trump’s aggressive policies on North Korea and Syria have shown that he is not a man of dialogue or negotiation. Thus far, he has followed the militarist route for resolving international issues, with little to no success to show for it.

After Trump’s election, the US administration has been worked up on forming a new strategy for the Afghan war, involving deeper US engagement in the country through additional troops and an amplified offensive on the extremists.

Alas, if only it were that simple. The Afghan conundrum will never be resolved, unless all major stakeholders – whilst setting aside their regional rivalries and geostrategic interests – are brought on board for finding a holistic, long-term solution for lasting peace and stability.

War breeds war. It should be crystal clear to the international community that weapons and drones will not help America win its longest ever war. For terrorists, ‘fighting foreign occupation’ is the ideal recruitment mantra in Afghanistan, ensuring a steady supply of fighters and suicide bombers. Add drone attacks to the mix and you have extra fodder to fan the flames of anger and resentment amongst innocent Afghans, who lost loved ones in such drone strikes, and now will go to any extremes to avenge their fallen.

A complete military withdrawal from Afghanistan is the only inevitable, face-saving way out for America and its allies; the question America must now find answers for is how and when.

However, the US, despite criticism back home for the heavy losses in personnel and weapons expenditure, has reasons to stay put in Afghanistan.

The first is China. Whereas the American strategy of military invasions has failed miserably, China’s unique approach of economically engaging in other countries has been remarkably successful. The Silk Road Economic Belt, commonly known as ‘One Belt One Road (OBOR)’ initiative, is an eyesore to the Americans. Although the fast economic growth of China and its resultant monetary investments in South Asia pose no threat to the US directly, it is nonetheless seen as a potential counterweight to American influence in the region.

Similarly, Russian fiscal and military revival under Vladimir Putin has been a bitter pill to swallow for America, especially since the Russian annexation of Crimea from Ukraine. The US fears that, if left unchecked, Russia might seek to revive its communist propensities of the bygone era.

Iran is another nation that the US wants to monitor closely. Post-Barack Obama, the historic civil nuclear deal and the ensuing cordial atmosphere that was created with Iran are now in complete disarray. We are once again witnessing an over the top propaganda in the US against Iran and the assumed nonsensical nuclear threat it poses to America’s closest ally, Israel.

Thus, Afghanistan proves to be an ideal focal point for America to maintain its footprint and standing in South and Central Asia.

But how does Pakistan fare in this complex geopolitical puzzle?

Since 9/11, more than 80,000 Pakistani lives have been lost to this unwanted war, and still, the US and the international community continue to raise ‘do more’ slogans against us. Granted, as a society, we were initially in a state of confusion about how to deal with the extremists. But since the attack on the Army Public School (APS) in Peshawar, Pakistan has been on an all-out offensive with a singular purpose of eliminating rogue elements from our borders. Even the US has now acknowledged our resolve and perseverance in defeating terrorism.

The reason why we have been successful in our military operation against the terrorists is that ours was entirely an internal struggle. Without foreign pressure or influence, we categorically followed this approach through civil-military cooperation. Conversely, the US lacks the moral authority to fight against terrorists in Afghanistan, because from the Afghan perspective, Americans themselves are the invaders and aggressors.

Niccolo Machiavelli said,

“Although one may be very strong in armed forces, yet in entering a province, one has always need of the goodwill of the natives.”

Pakistan is right in stressing and calling for an “Afghan-led and Afghan-owned” peace process. Whether the ultimate solution lies in compromising with the Taliban through power sharing, or by destroying their networks through sheer force, the methodology to be applied must be based solely on the wishes on the Afghan people, with the concurrent surety of complete American withdrawal.

Otherwise, group names may change from Taliban to al Qaeeda to the in vogue Islamic State (IS), but the essential crisis of defeating terrorism in Afghanistan will linger on indefinitely.

Usman Ali Virk

Usman Ali Virk

The author hails from Lahore and is a lawyer by profession. He recently graduated with a Masters in Law from the University of California, Berkeley.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.