Indo-Pacific Security Endangered by United States’ Likely Exit From Afghanistan
Afghanistan’s geostrategic location and presence of US Forces embedded in Afghanistan provide a sheet anchor for Indo Pacific security on its Western Periphery. Indo Pacific Security template has comprehensively emerged as crucial for US security in 2018 prompting rechristening of US Pacific Command as US Indo Pacific Command.
To that end, US President Trump and the Washington policy establishment need to deliberate and come to purposeful political and military conclusions that would ensure that Afghanistan security and stability is strongly secured so that it contributes effectively to the overall security template of Indo Pacific security. US-exit from Afghanistan is not a desirable option for the United States.
The United States if it is seriously committed to the concept of Indo Pacific Security template whose forging is underway, then the United States needs to comprehensively transform Afghanistan into the ‘Frontline State of Indo Pacific Western Periphery Security’.
Curiously, even Pakistan which has consistently created turbulence in Afghanistan and attempted to destabilise Afghanistan so that it becomes ripe for the return of a Taliban regime in Kabul as its proxy, is reported to prefer some sort of US military presence staying on in Afghanistan.
The China-Pakistan-Russia Trilateral on Afghanistan would not have taken shape to United States strategic disadvantage had Washington refrained from sending mixed signals on its intent to underwrite Afghanistan’s security and stability without any timelines for US drawback of US Forces and more importantly with committal of adequate US Military Forces till Pakistan’s intrusiveness in Afghanistan can be curtailed.
The United States needs to firmly caution Pakistan Army Generals that enough is enough and time has come for Pakistan to curtail its disruptive targeting of Afganistan through the Afghan Taliban and other terrorist affiliates, or face consequences.
One had pleaded for a Permanent US Forward Military Presence in Afghanistan on the lines of US Forward Military Presence in Japan and South Korea. My SAAG Paper No.5300 dated 06 September 2017 entitled “Afghanistan: Imperatives for United States Permanent Forward Military Presence” analysed the US imperatives in this direction in fair detail.
The United States must co-relate its Western Pacific security architecture of a mix of US Navy dominance coupled with sizeable land-based US Military Forces in Japan and South Korea. In the Western Indian Ocean Region the United States needs to replicate the same. While US Navy presence in the region is supreme, there is a debilitating lack land-based US Forward Military Presence in the Western Indian Ocean Region.
Pakistan by virtue of its now defunct US-Pakistan Mutual Security Treaty would have been a logical choice for hosting US Forward Military Presence. This is no longer possible with Pakistan decidedly moving into China’s strategic orbit and facilitating China’s possible naval presence in Gwadar Naval Base and a similar land-based Chinese military presence ostensibly for security of China Pakistan Economic Corridor.
Pakistan as revived US Ally can be ruled out by its duplicitous policies undermining US military embedment in Afghanistan and also the strong Islamist groups affiliated with the Pakistan Army would shackle it against any US military presence based in Pakistan.
Some in the US policy establishment would argue that Japan and South Korea pay financially for the US Forward Military Presence in the two countries. Afghanistan obviously cannot pay for US Forces embedded in Afghanistan. The financial load of such a US presence has to be borne by the United States as Afghanistan is a crucial component of US national security architecture in South West Asia.
Asserted in my earlier writings on Afghanistan were the strategic imperatives that dictate a permanently embedded US Forward Military Presence in Afghanistan. Reiterated again in brief is that Afghanistan provides a firm-base for the United States to control Central Asia, prevent Chinese and Russian influence gaining more strategic space in the Region and above all prevent the return of a Taliban regime in Afghanistan. The latter is an overriding national security imperative for United States.
US Military Presence embedded in Afghanistan acts as a dampener against any military adventurism by a politically unstable and economically fragile nuclear weapons state like Pakistan against countries on its flanks. Would the US policy establishment forget that Pakistan Army without any provocations launched for wars of aggression against India on its Eastern Flank? Similarly, Pakistan Army subjugated Afghanistan by proxy use of Taliban. Even when pretending to be a staunch US Ally in the global war on terrorism, Pakistan was harbouring Osama bin Laden in an Army Garrison deep within Pakistan and providing arms, ammunition and financial support to Afghan Taliban destabilising US military presence in Afghanistan.
Withdrawal of US Forces from Afghanistan, even fractional in numbers, creates a political and military vacuum which can be exploited by China and Russia to the disadvantage of the United States.
Recent statements by US President Trump after announcing withdrawal of US Military Forces from Syria and further indicating reduction of US Military Presence in Afghanistan by half is also disconcerting for countries like Japan and India which have been actively partnering the US-led Indo Pacific Security template initiative to keep the vast expanse from the Western Coast of the United States to the Western peripheries of the Indian Ocean secure against China adopting an increasing military profile in Western Peripheries of the Indian Ocean.
This report has since been denied officially by the United States but having surfaced as such it does create misgivings that it is a possibility that could surface again and that concerned nations need to ponder over contingency plans in the event of US exit from Afghanistan.
The Washington policy establishment surely is not unaware that China after establishing ‘full-spectrum dominance’ in the South China Sea in the Western Pacific is now engaged in a similar exercise in the Western Indian Ocean. Taken together, unless the United States indulges in immediate damage control of pre-empting China repeating the South China Sea experiment in Western Indian Ocean, China would be geopolitically and strategically strong to challenge United States global predominance.
The first step in this direction necessarily has to commence from US President Trump and the United States not making any U-Turns in American commitments to protect Afghanistan’s security and stability without any timelines.
US Forces embedded in Afghanistan astride and dominating the Western Flank of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor would seriously limit China’s naval intrusiveness in the North Western Quadrant of the Indian Ocean.
Globally, US commitments and pledges especially those focused on regional stability are taken very seriously by nations of any region. US domestic political compulsions should not endanger United States image as the predominant global power standing in between democracies and authoritarian regimes endangering security.
Repeated innumerably in my past Papers on military reality checks on Afghanistan was the singular fact that it was not the US Military Forces or their Commanding Generals that were found wanting in professional competence or military capability to gain military successes over the Afghan Taliban. US Military Forces in Afghanistan were seriously hampered in achieving successes due to micro-management of military operations and lack of sufficient numbers required to subdue the Taliban supported by Pakistan Army. It was also due to confused political signals emanating from Washington in terms of US intentions for continued embedment and an unwarranted US regard for sensitivities of Pakistan Army for better part of the last decade.
The United States did not pay serious attention to the size required, training requirements and motivation of the Afghan National Army. Afghan National Army should have been built up to half a million strong to adequately protect the sovereignty of Afghanistan and prevent the Taliban from gaining control over distant regions. The Afghan National Army was not built up to half a million strong because Pakistan Army objected for the better part of the last decade and the United States policy establishment yielded to the same. If it had been done the picture in Afghanistan would have not been so untenable.
Even in 2018- end, sections of the US policy establishment should refrain from dismal forecasts on Afghanistan to hold its own against the Taliban. The ground reality is that the Afghan Taliban has not been able to achieve full control over the whole of Afghanistan nor has the Afghan Taliban been able to prompt an abrupt exit of US Forces from Afghanistan like it had to suffer during the concluding stages of the Vietnam War.
Since the above is a ground reality then what other compulsions drive Washington to fall into periodic fits of despair on its commitments to uphold the security and stability of Afghanistan?
The United States enjoys an unpatrolled asymmetry in terms of financial and military resources over those of its strategic partners and therefore it becomes incumbent on the United States to shoulder an asymmetrical burden of Afghanistan’s security, The defence and security of Afghanistan cannot be reduced by the United States to a corporate balance-sheets if the United States desires to maintain and sustain its unquestioned predominance over global strategic dynamics.
In Conclusion, the United States has only two options on Afghanistan. The easy one is to abandon Afghanistan as it did in the1990s for which the United States had later on in its second military intervention in 2001 to pay an exorbitant price in terms of money, materials and soldiers’ lives to reclaim Afghanistan. The second option for the United States is to recognise the geostrategic centrality that Afghanistan has in terms of the security of the Western Peripheries of Indo Pacific Security which in turn also impacts heavily on United States overall national security interests. The call is for the United States to take and to decide whether domestic political compulsions should predominate over US national security interests?
By Dr Subhash Kapila