Professor Kanti Bajpai of JNU has written a thought-provoking essay in The Times of India that goes against the grain of conventional Indian thinking on U.S. policy towards Afghanistan and Pakistan. However, I think his proposals are—on balance—unlikely to yield the positive results he expects. I’ll address his main arguments one by one:
1. Prof. Bajpai argues that the U.S. cannot lose against the Taliban and al-Qaeda, but it cannot win outright. Therefore it must consider withdrawing. Elsewhere, Professor Bajpai is deterministic: “When the U.S. finally pulls out, as it must…”
The logic here is perplexing. The definition of victory is a fiercely debated point in counterinsurgency literature, but an outright “win” may not be the U.S. objective. In the case of the Iraq war, the U.S. definition of victory changed from establishing a non-Ba’athist democracy in 2003-2005 to leaving Iraq with a reasonably stable government and ensuring a very basic Iraqi security and law enforcement capability. That “victory,” however tenuous, looked impossible in 2006-2007 and involved a radical restructuring of the organization, training and doctrine of the U.S. military at the operational level; this was accomplished in only 2-3 years. The U.S. has defined victory in Afghanistan as the defeat of al Qaeda and the prevention of a return to a political situation in Afghanistan reminiscent of the 1990s, in which international extremism targeting U.S. interests could incubate. Achieving these goals will not be easy, but it is certainly within the abilities of the vast U.S. national security apparatus. And given the vivid memories of 9/11 and continuing terrorist threats, this is also a politically and morally defensible position. While there is some political resistance now in the U.S. and serious concerns about the role of the NATO coalition, neither Washington nor NATO high command is considering a sudden withdrawal of forces, as NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen’s recent op-ed in the Washington Post clearly indicated.
2. The U.S. presence in Afghanistan promotes rather than weakens extremism in Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere.
There is some indication that many Muslims are resentful of the American military presence in Muslim-majority countries. Afghanistan is not alone in this regard. Osama bin Laden, for example, was motivated in large part by the U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia. Short of a complete U.S. military withdrawal from all Muslim countries, a disengagement from Afghanistan is unlikely to satisfy those who harbor such grievances. That, in turn, will almost certainly have dramatic consequences for the entire region, including India. There is another problem with this argument: the inability of the United States to establish governing structures in many parts of Afghanistan has to do with its relative absence, not its stifling presence. The U.S. force has been very small indeed, and has remained largely in major cities and PRTs. The idea that this military presence is a leading cause on its own of resentment is therefore not convincing. Certainly, violence was at a relatively low level in the first four years after the U.S. invasion (2002-2005). Finally, elsewhere in his article, Professor Bajpai even acknowledges the possibility that “The US’s presence may be a bulwark against radicalisation.”
3. It is better for the United States to leave now, when moderates in Pakistan are stronger, than later when Pakistani moderates are likely to become sidelined.
Again, the logic of this argument is unsatisfactory. Professor Bajpai bases this assessment on the assumption that Pakistan is on a steady trajectory of radicalization, and also that a U.S. withdrawal leaves open the possibility of establishing the position of moderates in the Pakistani political system. If recent history is anything to go by, there is absolutely no guarantee of either. Despite the return of civilian governance to Pakistan in the late 1980s, radicalism and shadow military rule did not dissipate. A Pakistani ‘success’ in establishing Afghanistan as a realm of influence—as it will certainly be portrayed—will also undoubtedly encourage rather than discourage Pakistani military adventurism and legitimize the army’s regular interventions in Pakistan’s domestic politics.
4. The Taliban of the 2010s is more risk averse than the Taliban of the 1990s, and unlikely to support extremism and terrorism. Extremism could well decline, just as communism declined after the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam.
I would certainly hope this were true, but recent experience suggests otherwise. The Taliban protected Osama bin Laden after the U.S. embassy bombings in Africa in the 1990s, and once again following the 9/11 attacks. It has more recently been involved in supporting militancy outside of Afghanistan, in Pakistan. Further, the comparison with Vietnam does not hold. In Vietnam, the United States mistook a primarily nationalistic movement for a primarily ideologically-motivated one; in Afghanistan there is a real danger of miscasting the struggle the other way around.
5. Washington can perform a counterterrorism role using drones and air power, which is more affordable and efficient.
This argument has achieved currency in realist circles in the United States, but the seductive image of no-cost unmanned warfare is illusory. Drone strikes require on-the-ground intelligence for accurate targeting, which in turn requires an intelligence support system and consequently some kind of friendly military presence. Furthermore, drone strikes work well for the purpose of leadership decapitation, but not for the purposes of defeating an insurgency. They also result in occasional civilian casualties, and have been used as a justification for international terrorist activities, including the attempted Times Square bombing by Faisal Shahzad. While they have been successful in the FATA, drone strikes are an option arising out of necessity, as the United States cannot have an on-the-ground presence on the Pakistani side of the Durand Line. There is no way that drone or air strikes alone can provide law and order to an area of any significant size, let alone all of southern Afghanistan.
6. Nationalism could prevent the rise of extremism in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Pakistani military will have even less luck in Afghanistan than others who have tried to subjugate it.
Pakistan has never attempted to permanently control territory across the Durand Line, so the argument that Pakistani rule will fail just like other external interventions is irrelevant. Even if that was Rawalpindi’s objective, it would be untrue, since the much overused ‘Graveyard of Empires’ thesis is grounded in only two historical circumstances, both unusual: the massacre of the British during the First Afghan War in 1841-42 (after which Britain returned to establish a buffer zone) and the Soviet invasion in the 1980s (when the mujahideen received significant external support from the United States, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan). Nationalistic sentiments are indeed something for both states to worry about, but they did not adversely affect Pakistan’s support of the Taliban in the 1990s, and the hypothetical return of the Quetta Shura, as part of some sort of power-sharing agreement in Kabul in the event of a U.S. withdrawal, will only reinforce the Pakistani military’s position in Afghanistan as a key supporter and power-broker.
7. The Afghanistan war is distracting from other important problems, including the rise of China, the defense of the global commons, and other important issues of a global nature.
This is Professor Bajpai’s most convincing argument, particularly the distraction from the momentous geopolitical changes underway in the Asia-Pacific region. But it is all the more reason why the United States needs to redouble efforts now, rather than let the Afghanistan problem fester. On other matters of global import, the U.S. has in fact stepped up its leadership, from climate change (where it was instrumental in striking a deal with the BASIC states), maritime security (where it has agreed to intercede in East Asia), and international financial regulation (where it helped establish the G20), to name but a few examples. The United States’ fiscal woes are indeed a serious problem, but the Afghanistan war will cost it only 0.7% of its GDP this year (and this figure also represents a big increase over previous years as a result of the ongoing surge).
8. India dealt successfully with Pakistan before between 1989 and 2001. The two might even be able to cooperate on Afghanistan.
Such reasoning does not account for Pakistani calculations and policies over the past 20 years. Many Indians remember that a young Benazir Bhutto promised a “thousand year war” over Kashmir. The late 1980s and early 1990s saw the apex of the Kashmir insurgency, which had Pakistani support. The period also saw the Kargil War, perpetuated by Pakistan despite an ongoing peace process, and the hijacking in 1999 of Indian Airlines Flight 814 to Kandahar. Further, the publicly-articulated reason that Pakistan has not cooperated with the United States more on Afghanistan is the fear of Indian influence, which consists of a handful of developmental projects, a small embassy and four consulates staffed by a few dozen people. If Pakistani intransigence is the result of such benign actions on the part of India, the likelihood that Pakistan would agree to greater cooperation with India in Afghanistan over the long term is next to nil.