Why Exit Afghanistan
By Harriss Ali Akakhail
After 17 years roving into Afghanistan, USA now seems to be inclined for a graceful exit. US President Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, Mr Zalmay Khalilzad, is presently having a fourth tour of the region and meeting almost all stakeholders to amicably solve the matrix of settling down the conflict. For now, Washington seems to be divided into two halves, one is the President’s office and the other one is the Pentagon. Vibes coming out of President office is loud and clear for an immediate exit, while in case of the Pentagon, it’s to show restraint and stay put. This divide forced the Secretary of Defense, James Norman Mattis to resign, while Donald trump brags that he fired him as off his massive failings in Afghanistan.
For last 17 years, five schools of thoughts have evolved and thrived with singular and a mix of versions for US intervention and subsequent stay in Afghanistan. But now it seems that all five school of thought theories are falling apart. The first one says that it was to eliminate save heavens of Al-Qaeda and to dismantle her support networks offered by Taliban. Second one quip that US wanted to extract Central Asian oil and gas reserves via Afghanistan. Third version says that the intervention was meant to curb the scourge of opium trade. Fourth, raises the voice that US is after the mineral resources of Afghanistan amounting to nearly trillions of dollars. The fifth and last ones stick to the version that intervention was mandatory to contain neighboring countries of Afghanistan by physical presence of US forces.
Serving commanders of US / NATO forces in Afghanistan have confessed that war in Afghanistan has entered a phase of stalemate, where no side is a clear winner. US government watch dogs, foreign and Afghan based policy groups and think tanks now formally confess that talibans are controlling large swaths of the country and are a proper political / military entity to be reckoned with. They can’t be overpowered, neither overrun nor ignored, as without appeasing them Afghanistan shall remain in a stalemate state of war. So by now it can easily be said that the first school of thought theory, which says that US intervention was to dismantle Al-Qaeda and talibans save heavens presently stands invalid because Al-Qaeda, talibans and now ISIS remains a potent enemy with proper structures. If they could not be dismantled in 17 years with over a trillion dollar investment and a bloodbath than even 17 more years shall not be enough.
During Taliban era, from 1996-2001, UNOCAL was in deep communication with talibans, with the behest of Washington, for an oil / gas pipeline deal. That pipeline was to run from Central Asian states, then through Afghanistan and onwards to Karachi port with pumping in massive oil and gas supplies. But for all these years of US military active deployment, that pipeline did not make it out of the drawing board. Just for past one year the world gets to know that pipeline with the name of Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline. Passing this pipeline through Afghanistan required deep negotiations by afghan government with talibans to get a final nod. Apparently in the end it was talibans to have a final word in this case. Accordingly in present times, the version of second school of thought that US intervention in Afghanistan was for the purpose to extract central Asian oil / gas resources, stands down.
After looking bottomless into the graphs put up over the years by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crimes (UNODC) and Afghan Ministry of Counter Narcotics, a routine soul can reason that after US military intervention, production of opium crop has scaled exponentially. With almost 1000 metric ton production of opium in 2001 by Afghanistan, it stands now well above 9,000 metric tons mark in 2018 and that amounts to 93% of world production. In last 17 years, US have invested well about $8 billion in opium eradication programs in Afghanistan but it seems to be a futile exercise as now Afghan farmers have switched from a single crop to three crops of opium per year, thanks to genetically modified (GM) seeds. Opium production suits Afghan climate and have transformed as a bustling industry which generated $4 to $6 billion per year. So, this acutely turns down the third school of thought theory that US intervention in Afghanistan was meant to curb opium production / trade as it turns out to be exactly the opposite.
Every now and then western media categorically quotes through geologists and miners that Afghanistan contains mineral resources of iron ore, led, lithium and other rare earth items of worth trillions of dollars. If those resources are tapped well and proper, it can transform the density of Afghans and foreign investors of mining sector. For minerals of Afghanistan to be extracted, a comprehensive investment plan, top rated security environment for investors, backed up by road and rail network is required. But study of all the prerequisites identifies that in this sphere, Afghan economy stands at negative. In last 17 years US and European allies did not even touch or showed interest in this area as now it stands at not even at a threshold level. Although President Ashraf Ghanni has started working tirelessly to formulate a plan for mining sector and connect afghanistan within itself and to outside world via rail and road network but it shall take at least a decade more. So the fourth school of thought which says that US intervention in Afghanistan was a result of dire need to extract Afghanistan minerals, stands down.
US military operates more than 700 physical presences around the terrestrial globe but almost 99% of them are at peace time locations. Afghanistan is one major presence and a practical one too where US military and NATO allies remains deadly engaged, even at peak time deployment of more than 100 thousand. As of her commitments well inside the fringes of Afghanistan, it never posed or got a chance to deter a real military intervention challenge to neighboring Pakistan, Iran or distant neighbors like Russia and China. Neither US could stop the neighboring countries to meddle in Afghan affairs. Today we see Iran, Pakistan, Central Asia, Russia and even China having a lot of say inside Afghanistan. Sections of afghan government and society are inclined to listen and act as per the tunes of the neighboring countries. So the fifth school of thought, who says that US intervention in Afghanistan was for containment of the region, stands down.
Aforementioned scrutiny thoroughly deduce that for what all reason USA made a direct intervention into afghanistan, now stands at nil and there seems no more quantifiable reason to stay put. Stats show that US is still pumping about $50 billion per year into Afghanistan, with troop casualties, to keep its military presence alive and support the afghan government. But for what outcomes US is staying put? as apparently, it’s a total loss.
Indeed, times are ripe for a formal US exit but before she announces an exit plan, it must be ascertained that Taliban and Afghan government starts a comprehensive dialogue to end the hardhearted conflict.
The writer is an Afghan Expert