Afghanistan holds 200 bn barrels of oil, almost a third of the Persian Gulf reserves and at least $1 trillion of minerals, largely copper, iron, gold. The availability of lithium, a key component of IT and communication equipment makes it a veritable ‘Saudi Arabia of Lithium’.
On 13 April 2021, US President Joe Biden announced that “It’s time to end the forever war” in Afghanistan. As the fourth incumbent in the White House overseeing the US presence in the trouble torn nation, he said “…I will not pass the responsibility on to a fifth”, thereby emphatically making a statement of US intent.1 Although he did postpone the deadline from 1 May by four months to 11 September, the symbolism of the date was not lost to the world.
National interests drive wars. The shock of the World Trade Center bombing 20 years ago demanded swift, decisive action and US President George W. Bush did just that—launch a Global War on Terror (GWOT). But after Osama Bin Laden was killed, US aim in Afghanistan lost direction, shifting from counter insurgency to peace building and capability development of the Afghan army that would take over the responsibility from US and NATO forces in a gradual and phased manner. However, the script went awry as the Taliban reasserted themselves with support from Pakistan, with a determined push to remove the Afghan national government and set up a Caliphate in the country.
A perceptible increase in violence, body bags of US servicemen reaching home and a dwindling US public support for continuing the war hastened the decision to pull out US forces. In 2018, 49% Americans believed US had failed in Afghanistan while 35% only voted for success. 58% Veterans believed it was not worth fighting for in Afghanistan. That the matter was serious is evident from the fact that in 2019 US dropped more munitions in Afghanistan than any other year since 2010. On 29 February 2020, in a surprise shift from earlier policy, US signed an agreement with arch enemies Taliban at Doha. Aside from other conditions like prisoner exchange, intra-Afghan talks and a promise not to use Afghan soil to threaten US or its allies, the US agreed to reduce its troop presence from 13,000 to 8,600 by June and committed itself to a full pull-out in 14 months.
RELEVANCE OF AFGHANISTAN
If eliminating Osama Bin Laden had been the aim of the GWOT, the war would have been over in 2011 itself. But Afghanistan has huge geo-strategic importance aside from the Al Qaeda threat to US mainland. Afghanistan sits at the crossroads of the North-South and East-West corridors through Asia. Its access to the soft underbelly of both Russia through the CARs and China through Xinjiang makes it pivotal to any Western strategy to contest the growing Russia-China relationship. It gives NATO and the US a secure base and foothold in Central Asia to influence developments in Iran and CARs.
The geo-economic relevance is enormous. Afghanistan is appreciated to holding 200 bn barrels of oil, almost a third of the Persian Gulf reserves and at least $1 trillion of minerals—largely copper, iron, gold. The availability of lithium, a key component of IT and communication equipment makes it a veritable “Saudi Arabia of Lithium”.
US PRESENCE IN AFGHANISTAN
Over the years, US military presence has waxed and waned in Afghanistan. However, US has to a large extent outsourced a lot of its security and logistics to private contractors. From one contractor per soldier about a decade ago, the figure is now seven to every soldier in Afghanistan. This implies that many security tasks like intelligence, covert operations, protection of bases, communications etc are hived off to these private security companies (PSCs). According to Jeremy Kuzmarov, writing in The Gray Zone, as many as 18,000 contractors are presently in Afghanistan, with about 2,500 US soldiers. These contractors include Special Forces operatives, private personnel and mercenaries from all over the globe, in addition to locals.2 Writing in the Stars and Stripes, J.P. Lawrence argues that about 4,700 of these contractors are Afghans, a third US citizens and many from countries as diverse as Nepal and Uganda.3 A good number, about 1,575 are mostly US armed security personnel for various specialised tasks. This is in addition to approximately 6,000 Nato troops stationed in the country.
Biden’s officials have confirmed that in addition to the usual security to protect diplomatic presence, which is quite normal, there will be “repositioning of troops” in the region.4 This suggests that while the military footprint may reduce, US interests will continue to be addressed adequately. A former veteran is quoted as saying that the United States would remain after the formal departure of US troops with a “shadowy combination of clandestine Special Operations Forces, Pentagon contractors and covert intelligence operatives…with a mission to…find and attack the most dangerous Qaeda or Islamic state threats”.5
US WITHDRAWAL A LOSS OF FACE?
After spending nearly $2 trillion over two decades in Afghanistan and sacrificing 2,400 US servicemen, the cost for the US has been considerable. Yet its withdrawal at this juncture creates a critical void leaving the space open to instability and even civil war. A retreating US from the Asia Pacific has emboldened China in the South China Sea and East China Sea, causing deep concerns about the credibility of US commitment to its allies Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. The pull-out from Middle East, especially the loss of strategic space in Syria, has only reinforced the slide in US power in that region. A pull-out from Afghanistan, at least its military footprint, will exacerbate the loss of faith in US commitment in South Asia. Clearly, US is leaving Afghanistan to its fate.
With US leaving behind adequate private contractors to oversee no threat to its mainland, the space is open to many players. Russia is unlikely to burn its fingers after its “debacle decade” in the 1980-1990 occupation of Afghanistan. In any case, it neither has the power nor the capability to repeat that folly. China has termed the withdrawal as “disgraceful”, comparing it to US withdrawal from Vietnam. Chinese interests are essentially to ensure no spillover of Islamic fundamentalism into restive Xinjiang, although her economic interests remain mining and reconstruction projects post withdrawal. It is unlikely that China will put boots on the ground, having read their history well about Afghanistan being the “graveyard of empires”. India has never harboured any territorial ambitions in Afghanistan, resisting the temptation of putting “boots on the ground” by getting militarily embroiled in Afghanistan. In any case, its commitment has been limited to economic reconstruction and people friendly projects, aside from capability building of the Afghan Army. Pakistan definitely wants to control a pliant regime in Afghanistan for two main reasons: ensure Pashtun interests are addressed in any government formation in Afghanistan and seek a permanent solution for converting Durand Line into a de-facto international border. Strategically, it intends to keep India out of Afghanistan as well as relieve the binary stretch of the Pakistan Army, which has committed large resources from the LoC with India to the Durand Line. However, Pakistan’s cards are limited, as control of the northern parts of Afghanistan, which are traditionally Uzbek, Tajik strongholds, will be a major challenge. In any case, historical animosity between the two runs too deep for Pakistan to occupy this space with impunity.
The stage is set for more instability and civil war in Afghanistan.
Maj Gen Mandip Singh, SM, VSM has recently retired from Northern Command. A former Senior Fellow at IDSA and a Visiting Fellow at MERICS, Germany, he has an abiding interest in matters concerning China and India’s neighbourhood. A prolific writer, he is a regular speaker at the War Colleges around the country.
1 David E Sanger & Michael D Shear, “ Biden , Setting Afghanistan withdrawal, says ‘ It Time to End the Forever War’, New York Times,14 April 2021.
2 Jeremy Kuzmarov, “Biden isn’t ending the Afghanistan War, he’s privatizing it: Special Forces, Pentagon contractors, intelligence operatives will remain”, The Gray Zone, 16 April, 2021.
3 JP Lawrence,”Troop levels are down, but US says over 18,000 contractors remain in Afghanistan”, Stars and Stripes, 19 January 2021.
4 Helene Cooper, Eric Schmidt, Thomas Gibbons-Neff, “Biden to Withdraw All Combat Troops From Afghanistan by Sept. 11,” New York Times, 17 April 2021.
5 Jeremy Kuzmarov, op cit.