The Afghan turnstile

US strategy in Kabul

Ever since I have returned from Kabul, I am frequently asked by friends: when are the Americans leaving? When I say, “I don’t know,” I am dismissed like someone who has wasted his time in Afghanistan and returned without finding an answer to a universal query.

Even though President Barack Obama remains committed to July 2011, as the date for withdrawing American troops, those whose job it will be to supervise this withdrawal have introduced caveats: That July 2011 is not cast in stone; withdrawals will be conditioned by the situation on the ground; only combat troops will be withdrawn;
Afghan national army has to be ready to takeover and so on.

While Gen Stan McCrystal openly stated that a high profile for New Delhi in Kabul distracts Pakistan from its war-on-terror focus, even Gen David Petraeus has done his bit to keep Pakistan humoured by talking privately of India’s ‘cold start’ doctrine, a doctrine buried in Indian military archives, never mentioned in serious Indian discourse. But Islamabad has been able to sell this lemon to Petraeus until such time as the US switches off on this one — possibly near the Obama visit.

Augmentation by 30,000 troops has taken place. That is a fact. Withdrawal will depend on a variety of factors — including how well the ‘surge’ works. That is speculation. The Bonn Conference, convened by the UN Secretary General, set up, in President Obama’s words, ‘a provisional’ government under President Hamid Karzai. But that provisional government has lasted nine years. Indeed, at the July 20, 2010, Kabul Conference, convened by the UN, Karzai almost established his indispensability by obtaining a mandate (from the conference) that he would continue as president until 2014.

If Karzai is to remain president till 2014, surely he will require protection till then. If US and Nato are to start withdrawing in 2011 or even 2012, given the caveats listed above, there will still be need for Karzai to be protected or accorded safe passage. Surely it is nobody’s case that by 2014 Karzai will capture the hearts and minds of all Afghans. We have some sort of script until 2014. But the script could change after the 2012 US presidential elections.

Yes, mounting death toll (2,000 coalition soldiers) and costs of war ($337.8 billion) against the backdrop of a declining western economy, are all good reasons for the US to leave Afghanistan.

Supposing, the death toll is brought down to, say, double digits annually and the costs of combat are substantially reduced, will the Americans still leave?

According to Russian estimate there are 30 US bases in Afghanistan. Of these, the ones at Bagram, Jalalabad, Kandahar, Helmand, Shindand (Herat), Mazar-e-Sharif are, by the sheer volume of masonry and architecture, not temporary. These bases will remain. Are we then talking about a qualified departure?

Consulate at Mazar-e-Sharif

If the US is actually plotting departure, why is it building a consulate in the heart of Mazar-e-Sharif on a scale which would dwarf large embassies? Renaissance is the only reasonable hotel in Mazar-e-Sharif. An entire section has been transformed into a dormitory for labour working on the US consulate. To the two gigantic blocks in the fortified embassy in Kabul with 700 personnel, a larger block is being added! US diplomats and army officers in large numbers are learning Pushto and Darri back in the US.

If all these preparations for an extended non combat stay in Afghanistan are, in some parlance, tantamount to military departure, so be it. The US was to have left Iraq. But 50,000 will remain in the various bases which are, ultimately, like country houses — open the locks and they are fully functional again.

After 72 days of relentless bombing of Serbia, I have seen the US create an independent state of Kosovo. But while departing they left behind Bond Steel, then the largest US base since the Vietnam War, in Kosovo, abutting Macedonia. Also, an entire hill had been taken over in Skopje, capital of Macedonia, to build an embassy larger than a medium size Indian fort. Guarding energy routes from the Black Sea or elsewhere are one obvious strategic interest in this area.

Russians must be digging in likewise in Abkhazia and Ossetia. Supply lines to these bases will have to be secured. This means control over Karachi port and reports from Karachi are incrementally alarming. The rest of the route from Karachi through Balochistan to Afghanistan is never too far from Taliban and al-Qaeda friendly areas whether in Quetta or in Kandahar. This leads to another major US requirement: the security of Pakistan, at present fighting on multiple fronts. The unprecedented floods are aggravating all these fronts.

The supply route also gives Islamabad considerable leverage over the US. But to retain this leverage Pakistan must have control over this strategic territory. This leads to finger pointing at real or imaginary ‘mischief’ from India. Balochistan’s border with Iran has occasionally livened up. What is not discussed sufficiently is the internal instability, the insurgency in Balochistan.

In the absence of alternative supply routes, Americans have an abiding interest in Baloch, indeed, Pak stability. There is, of course, no dearth of theorists suggesting this route may also have a diversionary potential toward the Gawadar port the Chinese are building. After listening to all this, my friends ask: But when are the Americans leaving?

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