US intentions – what it wants or plans or thinks it might possibly do in Afghanistan after 2014 – are again in the news. Will Washington want bases? Will US soldiers ‘just’ be training Afghan troops or participate in fighting? And how many soldiers might remain in Afghanistan? On the Afghan side, both President Karzai and the Taleban appear to believe the United States is quite desperate to stay in Afghanistan and that having military bases on Afghan soil are a core strategic interest for the superpower. At the recent loya jirga, for example, the Afghan president looked like a man who believes himself in an unassailable bargaining position, so sure that the customer wants what is on offer, that he can insult him and still get a high price. But is it possible the US might just walk away, asks Kate Clark.
The bargaining over whether US bases will remain on Afghan soil after ‘transition’ is completed at the end of 2014 brought to mind a Monty Python sketch from the 1970s involving the mafia, a British army colonel and a military base (watch the sketch here) or read details of the plotline below*).
Like the Python sketch, discussions over post-2014 frequently become surreal.
The assumption on the Afghan side is that the US is bent on staying in Afghanistan, at all costs. This surely underlay the way in which President Hamed Karzai, during his recent Loya Jirga speech, set out his demands in ways which pleased his audience by verbally humiliating the superpower, including, magnificently, his Pythonesque metaphor of Afghanistan as a lion:
Afghanistan is ready to sign strategic agreement with the United States, which is to our benefit. They bring us money; train our soldiers and police, and provide security for the home of the lion. The lion does not have leisure time to do all these things. They should protect his surroundings but should not touch the lion’s home. They should protect the four boundaries of the jungle. They should train our police, America’s assistances will be beneficial to Afghanistan, as will be of the West and other countries.
On the other side, the Taleban seem equally convinced that the US is desperate for the bases, although they cast President Karzai not as lion, but as a puppet who is being forced to agree to America’s wicked demands.** The Taleban’s semi-fictional spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahed,*** claimed in January 2010, for example, that the US wanted the bases in order to get its hands on Afghanistan’s mineral wealth.
The tempo of economic and industrial progress is going to shift from America and Europe to Asia in the near future. This economic impetus needs raw material. Hence, the invading America wants to bring under her belly the natural resources of Afghanistan, ostensibly, under the name of war on terrorism, thus intending to coerce regional countries to agree to the colonialist objectives and strings of America. Similarly, they want to deprive the Afghan people of access to their natural resources and compel them live in poverty and misery (for full statement, see here).
One estimate of the cost of the war to America for 2011 alone was £122 billion – that would be an average of almost two and a half billion dollars a week (see here). How much mineral wealth would have to be mined to make the US deployment cost effective is difficult to imagine. But Mujahed was only responding to remarks made by US Republican senator, Lindsey Graham, who – sounding as much out of touch with reality as Mujahed – believes Afghans would be lucky to get US bases if America was gracious enough to supply them:
A couple of air bases in Afghanistan would allow the Afghan security forces an edge against the Taliban in perpetuity. It would be a signal to Pakistan that the Taliban are never going to come back in Afghanistan. They could change their behaviour. It would be a signal to the whole region that Afghanistan is going to be a new and different place. And if the Afghan people want this relationship, they’re going to have to earn it. (see full transcript here)
To be fair to Afghans, it is really difficult trying to work out the nature of any possible bargain. The US has been loath to spell out what it wants and intends to do after 2014 – and when US officials do speak, their messages are often confusing and contradictory. Senior political, diplomatic and military figures, particularly depending on if they are based in Kabul or DC, have differing views and their lobbying can mean contrary views get reported as intentions. This leaves everyone trying to fill in the gap. Even the agreement made at the October 2010 Lisbon summit of NATO to hand over security responsibilities to the Afghan government and end combat operations by the end of 2014 (transition) was hedged around with hints of conditionality and loopholes.
‘Certainly, our footprint will have been significantly reduced [by the end of 2014],’ said President Barack Obama at the time. ‘But beyond that, you know, it’s hard to anticipate exactly what is going to be necessary,’ adding that, ‘it is a goal to make sure that we are not still engaged in combat operations of the sort that we’re involved with now.’ ‘2014 is a goal, not a guarantee,’ said Mark Sedwill, NATO’s then top civilian representative in Kabul. He warned that poor security in some areas of Afghanistan could delay the pull-out date, and that the country could face, ‘eye-watering levels of violence by Western standards’ (both quotes and others in the New York Times here). Yet there was also certainty, for example from the US Vice-President Joe Biden who said in December 2010 that ‘[by 2014], we’re going to be totally out of there, come hell or high water’ (see here).
This week, there were again confusing messages in the reported remarks of General John Allen and Ambassador Ryan Crocker in the Wall Street Journal here and the New York Times here. The NYT headline that ‘U.S. Troops Could Stay in Afghanistan Past Deadline, Envoy Says’ is actually not news; this has been said and implied before. The main new possibility was that Allen has been lobbying for a pause in the drawdown, with the pre-surge number of 68,000 troops staying on through 2013. (articles to be found here and here)
What actually appears to be on the table (this gleaned from conversations with the military, diplomats and US journalists) are five bases – in Bagram, Mazar, Kandahar, Shindand and Jalalabad. Then there are the troops remaining behind for mentoring and training – the figure being bandied around is 20-30,000. Along with all this would come the facility to fly drones and to station small contingents of combat troops – Special Forces – and the unmentionable CIA, both with their own specially trained Afghan counterparts, who would be specifically charged with ‘counter-terrorism’.
On the Afghan side are demands for control of prisoners, an end to night-raids and an end to impunity for Americans alleged to have committed crimes in Afghanistan. There are also reported requests for expensive – and for Afghan forces, high tech and shiny to the point of being unusable – weaponry, such as F-16 fighter jets and Abrams tanks.
The sacked deputy head of the US training mission in Afghanistan, General Peter Fuller, alluded to this when he said, ‘I actually had someone senior tell me, “All I want to do is put them [tanks] on a flat bed and drive them around in a parade.”’ Fuller, sounding driven to distraction, compared the NATO training mission, which he was then second in command of, using a metaphor worthy of the Pythons, to teaching a man to fish. ‘You can teach a man how to fish, or you can give them a fish. We’re giving them fish while they’re learning, and they want more fish! ‘[They say] ‘I like swordfish, how come you’re giving me cod?’ Guess what? Cod’s on the menu today’ (for full story see his interview in Politico here).
In the New York Times article, already mentioned, the one frightening comment was from Crocker, who said that, in some cases ‘major weapons systems will not reach Afghanistan’ until after 2014, so Afghans will need assistance learning how to operate and maintain them. Anyone remembering how Afghan government weapons were turned on Afghan civilians after 1992 and killed tens of thousands of people in Kabul alone, as the Afghan army fragmented on ethnic lines, would urge caution against providing any weapon capable of inflicting mass casualties.
A Strategic Partnership Agreement had seemed to be on the cards in May 2011 (when Karzai announced he would hold a Loya Jirga to discuss the issue), but by the summer, enthusiasm on the US side had waned (for discussion of this, see the Washington Post here). Diplomats in Kabul now say they are pleased with the outcome of the Loya Jirga, overlooking the obviously rigged ‘consensus’ for a strategic partnership agreement (for details, see here), but noticeably, they speak of a possible ‘strategic partnership’, without using the word agreement, deal or anything else. Moreover delaying any deal now appears to have become politically expedient. The US is gearing up for the next presidential elections in November 2012, which means that making a decision on the bases would entail President Obama spelling out exactly what he plans – long-term – to do about Afghanistan. Another comedy sketch – ‘Don’t mention the war!’ – comes to mind.****
It may be that, in the end, the Afghan government is wrong and it is they who want the bases more than the Americans. This was the conclusion of the former US general and ambassador, Karl Eikenberry, who wrote in a leaked diplomatic cable in January 2010 that ‘[Karzai] and much of his circle do not want the US to leave and are only too happy to see us invest further… They assume we covet their territory for a never-ending ‘war on terror’ and for military bases to use against surrounding powers.’
For the US, as for almost every country contributing troops to ISAF, the Afghan war is a huge drain on the economy at a time of fiscal difficulty, and is deeply unpopular among most of the electorate. Moreover, Osama bin Laden is dead and the Arab Spring has changed the very context for the ‘War on Terror’. Tired of fighting, tired of propping up a government which always complains, always asks for more money and keeps saying it will reform and never does, tired of Afghanistan’s neighbours, one can just about imagine a full withdrawal happening, although one still spun as a victory. Or, more likely at this point is a withdrawal lite, with Special Forces ops, CIA black ops and drone attacks fighting alongside Afghan forces, to defend a – possibly embattled – Karzai/Karzai successor government. In other words, a continuation of the war.
If the US did walk away from Afghanistan completely, that could also cause problems for the Taleban. They say they want all the foreign soldiers to leave, but if they did, the war would become a purely civil war again, with Afghan Muslims fighting Afghan Muslims. This would be reminiscent of the Emirate era when, surreally, both the Taleban and the Northern Alliance claimed to be fighting a jihad. As one Taleb commander candidly admitted, if no ‘infidels’ are present to legitimise the conflict, it would become a war between munafiqin – or hypocrites. In Islamic tradition, they are one of the worst categories of humanity.
* I would really recommend watching the sketch, but if you cannot, it is about two mafiosi trying to extort protection money from a British army colonel by threatening to damage his base, break his tanks and burn his paratroopers. Plot-wise, the sketch actually more closely resembles another situation common in today’s Afghanistan – where an ISAF commander pays an armed group/private security company to protect a base or convoy or project from the Taleban who in turn get a cut of the contract in return for not attacking (see here and on the aid side here)
** See, for example the Taleban’s response on 23 June 2011 to President Obama’s announcement of the withdrawal of 10,000 US soldiers by the end of 2011:
‘Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (sic) considers this… only as a symbolic step which will never satisfy the war weary international community or the American people because it comes as America simultaneously wants to build permanent bases in Afghanistan under the title of ‘Strategic Agreement’ by forcing its stooge regime to sign and approve it while it is at the same time busying its invading forces in killing and persecuting the Afghan people in all corners of Afghanistan.’ (see here)
*** So many men have inhabited the role of Mujahed that it seems misleading to treat him as a specific person.
**** By ex-Python, John Cleese, in the series ‘Fawlty Towers’ (see here).
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020