As the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) prepares to pull out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014, it is of significance to assess larger American interests at play in the country and the region. How will the US leverage its resources to secure those interests?
American Strategy: Keeping a Residual Force
Several voices in the US are of the view that the troop drawdown is reasonable. The US has achieved the mission of killing Osama bin Laden and has paralysed al Qaeda's operational structure. The prevailing argument is that the war that has been expensive and has resulted in the loss of several thousand American lives needs to finally end. Yet, official declarations talk in terms of ensuring stability in Afghanistan that requires US presence for training and supporting the ANSF while focussing on counter-terrorism missions.
What remains understated is how Afghanistan, as an important geopolitical asset, serves larger American interests in the region. It is the Pentagon’s only military base in Central Asia, with Iran to the west, Pakistan to the east, China to the northeast, various resource-rich former Soviet republics to the northwest, and Russia to the north. A presence in Afghanistan would not only serve to enhance economic and trade interests but also help the US keep a close tab on these countries.
This explains US involvement in painstaking negotiations to conclude a Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) that would enable it to maintain bases post-2014. The prospect of a continued presence in Afghanistan has also led the Obama administration to seek a peace deal with the Afghan Taliban by offering them a de-facto diplomatic mission in Qatar.
The charged confrontation between the US and Russia over Ukraine has further boosted the support towards maintaining bases. Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in a Washington Post article, linked Russia’s actions in Ukraine with the troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. According to her, anything less than the American military’s requirement for 10,000 troops will suggest that the US is not serious about helping to stabilise that country, which is likely to embolden countries like Iran, Iraq and Russia.
Aid as Carrot and Stick
The US Congress has been giving out multibillion dollar annual bills as aid to the Afghan army. However, with Karzai sticking to his word on not signing the BSA until after elections, the administration has claimed that the financial assistance, whether for armed forces or development programmes, is likely to drop steeply. In January 2014, Congress slashed the development budget for Afghanistan by half and even reduced security aid by 60 per cent.
A recent report by the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) states that the delay in signing the BSA is compounding uncertainty and diminishing economic confidence in Afghanistan. According to the report, the Afghan economy is witnessing increased capital flight, delay in investments, incipient job losses, declining demand for goods and services, and is leading to farmers planting more poppy. More families are choosing to arm themselves, leading to a hike in weapon prices. Stating that it is bound to spread into the government and security structures, the report puts the BSA as an anchor in navigating transition challenges.
Using the Region to Leverage US Interests
It is a given that with or without the BSA, the US is likely to play a lesser role in Afghanistan in the coming months. However, the region as a whole has braced itself for more involvement in Afghanistan, with America’s blessings. The neighbouring countries realise that an unstable Afghanistan is likely to become an incubator of terrorism, poppy production and other illicit activities. Pakistan and Iran understand the repercussions of a failed state in their backyard that has the potential to create unrest and instability within their own territories. Russia and China are already worried about the spread of insurgency in the troubled Chechenya and Xinjiang provinces respectively.
India for its part is uniquely positioned - as a friend to both Washington and Kabul. India remains in a position to use its good offices to ensure that a version of the BSA agreeable to both the countries is signed. Building on the 'narrative of opportunity' to counter the anxiety of withdrawal, New Delhi is attempting to shift focus to regional confidence-building, development, governance, trade and investment. India until now has transferred ‘no strings attached’ aid directly to Kabul despite knowing that the Afghan government is considered corrupt. India has also tried to deal with Pakistan’s fears over military involvement in Afghanistan. Thus, it has been evasive towards Afghan requests for tanks, field guns and aircraft. As it turns out, Washington, which was more than ambivalent regarding India’s participation in the region, wants more from New Delhi today.
The ‘new silk road’ initiative to link Afghanistan’s energy, mineral and trade resources with the rest of the world ideated by the Obama administration is also being taken up by the region collectively to exploit the transit potential that can accrue much needed economic growth for the country. If successful, the project can serve as a conduit for mutually beneficial cooperation between the US, Central Asia and Russia, helping the US to continue playing a consequential role in the region.