Sun Tzu and the Art of Afghanistan
“The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.”
The Afghan peace process remains uncertain. As the Taliban gains ground in strategic locations, pandits debate whether President Biden should completely withdraw troops according to the May 2021 timeline.
The argument itself indicates a larger disagreement about America’s global identity. It also tests the traditional stay-go dichotomy we fall back on, with great fluctuations in U.S. commitment and vision along the way.
The truth is many Americans still don’t see what an all-but-failed state halfway around the world has to do with us. Why should we keep pouring lives and money into its bottomless well of need?
But it doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing proposition. The top two considerations in this scenario should be:
1) What are likely consequences if we pull out completely?
2) How does that affect U.S. alliances and reputation?
There seems to be a flawed assumption that if we leave, it will all be over. But it’s never that simple. There’s a reason one administration after another committed to bring home the troops but never did.
Likely Consequences (Looking Back…)
For likely consequences, we can look to our own recent past. Afghanistan, like many places worldwide, was a setting for Cold War proxy battles between the United States and Soviet Union. When the Soviets left Afghanistan, it ceased to be important to near-term U.S. interests. It became a battleground for warlords previously funded by the United States and other countries (like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia).
Warlords exploited the power vacuum. Almost 50,000 people died between 1992 and 1996 in the fight for Kabul. At this point, the United States was well positioned to use its influence to lead an international effort to restore order. Unfortunately, it lacked official support.
This failure to act had long-term consequences for both Afghanistan and the United States.
Resulting instability contributed to the largest refugee crisis in history. Some refugees in Pakistan encountered fundamentalist Deobandi Islamic thought via madrassas there. This ideology developed in India during British colonialism. It’s close cousins with Saudi Wahhabism imported by foreign jihadis, such as Osama bin Laden, and has much in common with it.
But it is noticeably distinct from more tolerant ideologies traditionally preferred in Afghanistan. Its adherents have maintained ties with Pakistan, thus providing Pakistan with a means to exert influence. In this sense, the ideology guiding Taliban oppression in the Afghan homeland is itself a foreign influence.
It is the Taliban’s rise and the international jihadi network left behind from U.S.-Soviet rivalry that made the 9/11 attacks possible.
So abrupt disengagement has not produced good results in the past. If the United States repeats that maneuver, it’s likely the Taliban would soon take control, many thousands of lives would have been pointlessly lost, terrorism would skyrocket, and painfully won social progress would be shredded.
This matters not only for women afraid of losing basic human rights, but also for Afghanistan’s overall stability. Its development is, in part, dependent on growing a sense of possibilities in its trauma-scarred war generation. A hopeless, unstable Afghanistan is a fruitful field for terrorists who are growing more comfortable with the equalizing benefits of technology.
Friends Matter: Alliances & Reputation
Next, how does a complete departure at this stage affect U.S. alliances and reputation? Short answer: not well.
A bad exit will make it harder to trust us to follow through for long-term ventures. NATO expanded its mandate beyond Europe to continue post-Cold War partnership. Its intended role was for peacekeeping and reconstruction. This relationship was already tested when the U.S. reduced presence in Afghanistan to invade Iraq in 2003, leaving coalition troops to stem insurrection. But we’ll want its partnership going forward.
NATO troops presently outnumber U.S. troops in Afghanistan and have been dependent on our logistical platform. It has expressed strong commitment to long-term Afghan security and stability. But it’s currently unclear what we’re doing … mainly because we don’t know.
This lack of clarity and coordination makes us seem like an unreliable partner. And unless we plan to completely zero security and humanitarian funding in Afghanistan (see Consideration #1), the money can’t trail march on without proper in-country oversight aligned with the Global Fragility Act.
The Art We Need to Practice
So maybe there’s a third consideration: Is there a different way to do things in Afghanistan? Something that’s more brains and less brawn (although we still might need a little brawn)?
One option mooted as a tool for encouraging peace while reducing U.S. presence has been greater involvement by regional powers. The Afghan Study Group recently included this option as one component of its recent recommendations.
“The bedfellows politics made are never strange. It only seems that way to those who have not watched the courtship.”
~ Marcel Achard
In the past, though, the greatest difficulty in cooperation has been alignment of interests. For instance, the biggest problem in partnering with Pakistan for security wasn’t corruption (although there is a lot of it). It was utterly different priorities and over $60 billion in investments from China that gave our foreign aid less leverage.
Likewise, nearby Russia has its complicated history with Afghanistan. It tends to view U.S. presence and interests as antagonistic to its own — thus, allegations that Russia offered the Taliban bounties on U.S. military.
China, meanwhile, has limited involvement with Afghanistan. However, it has worked toward good relations with both Kabul and the Taliban. It opposed U.S. entry into Afghanistan post-9/11. Even so, it opposes a poorly staged U.S. exit as detrimental to regional stability and border integrity.
Thus, our dysfunctional peace process could serve as an opportunity — not another evolution of crisis. But we have to revise our vision of U.S. presence. It’s critical for U.S. policy-makers to incorporate traditional regional dynamics as we define a new strategy going forward.
Ideally, this will mean a continuance of low-level, noncombat involvement. That’s necessary for ongoing security support and funding oversight. We also need it for long-term humanitarian and diplomatic functions.
Strategic, limited regional involvement should complement a revised vision of presence — not a complete absence.
In the near term, regional partners’ most critical role may be as middlemen exerting influence with the Taliban. Partners could pressure them to hold up their end of the Doha agreement and secure an extension of the U.S. withdrawal deadline, if necessary.
Perhaps ironically, countries key to that task are ones with which the United States has had complicated relations. These include Iran, Russia, China, and Pakistan. Partners we’re not used to partnering with.
While these players would prefer to wave to us from a distance, all have dealings with the Taliban. They would likely find the specter of Afghan collapse the greater of two evils.
Perhaps the question is not whether we should leave, but what our involvement should look like. What path will produce the best outcomes long term?
According to Sun Tzu, those in possession of contentious ground have the advantage. So aligning these interests while we still have the advantage is an art worth mastering.
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