Wednesday, April 30, 2014

America Must Continue to Engage with Afghanistan after Karzai

The presidential election in Afghanistan is a dead heat between Former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah and Former Finance Minister Asraf Ghani, and neither of them won a majority in the preliminary round, according to the Independent Election Commission of Afghanistan (IEC). The election will go to the second round (“Preliminary Afghan vote results released”; Khaama Press; April 26, 2014). This election is vital to the future of Afghan security from the following points. It is the first peaceful power transition in Afghan history as the constitution prohibits President Hamid Karzai from running for the third term. In addition, security responsibility will be transferred to the Afghan government from NATO led ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) by the end of this year.

Prior to this election, the American Enterprise Institute held a panel discussion, moderated by Frederick Kagan, Director of the Critical Threats Project, to debate American policy in post Karzai Afghanistan on March 24. This event is so important because it explored bipartisan strategy for Afghan and regional security after the cutback of NATO troops. Guest speakers for this event were Congressman Adam Kinzinger and Seth Jones, Associate Director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at RAND Corporation, from the Republican side, and Caroline Wadhams, Senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, from the Democrat side. The panelists and attendants discussed a broad range of issues, including the BSA (Bilatelal Security Agreement), regional power interactions, and local livelihood. Furthermore, in terms of US foreign policy and the world order, Afghanistan is a critical test whether America can overcome domestic pressure of war-fatigued isolationism. Let’s see the following video.

Currently, the United States is preoccupied with new foreign policy focuses appearing one after another, from Syria to Ukraine, but it is utterly wrong to dismiss critical strategic implication of the war in Afghanistan, in view of the lessons of 9-11 attacks. As Frederick Kagan stated clearly, the greatest threat to the United States does not come from abroad but isolationism of both parties. Regardless of partisanship and ideology, the panelists speak unanimously against politicization of Afghan strategy, and told that internationalists work together to promote awareness. Among them, Congressman Kinzinger emphasized importance of US engagement with Afghanistan through his experience as an air force pilot to fight the War on Terror in Iraq. Though Karzai delays to sign the BSA through blaming collateral damages by the US forces, he stressed that Afghans from the Loya Jirga to the civil societies are on the American side. Having met Afghan leaders and citizens on his visit there, he told that the Afghan Security Forces had been professionalized to fight against Taliban and Al Qaeda, and deserting rate dropped sharply.

However, we know that the Obama administration did not leave sufficient troops in Iraq, though Secretary of Defense-then Robert Gates insisted on stationing several thousand of them after 2011 (“Redefining the Role of the U.S. Military in Iraq”; New York Times; December 21, 2008). Apparently, President Barack Obama appeased war-exhausted public. The consequence of it is so fatal as witnessed by the penetration of Jabhat al-Nusra to Syria from Al Qaeda re-rising Iraq. Therefore, Kinzinger argued that politicians should have courage to tell necessary policy to their constituencies however unpopular it is. He insists that America must stand for freedom and justice. As seen in Syria, conservative opponents to global intervention are reluctant to American sacrifice for the sake of “remote” people, particularly Muslims who appears potential enemy for them. On the other hand, liberal opponents are apologetic to American military presence abroad. Meanwhile, Democratic Senator Bob Casey represents one of few liberal proponents for continual US engagement after 2014. Afghan security depends on successful bipartisan alliance of internationalists in Washington.

Why is the American public so unenthusiastic with continual involvement? Wadhams refuted widely spread misunderstandings that the Obama administration was disengaging from Afghanistan. She argued that the Obama team sent top members to Afghanistan, like Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, in order to discuss the future of regional security. However, the public is fatigued with long wars since the Bush era. In addition, she told that Americans were losing confidence in global commitment because of disillusionment with foreign engagement and domestic priority to improve the economy. She said furthermore, that Americans would be disappointed if human rights abuse and corruption become serious in Afghanistan. At the Tokyo conference, donor countries demanded the Karzai administration to curb corruption in return for $16 billion aid (“Afghanistan aid: Donors pledge $16bn at Tokyo meeting”; BBC News; 8 July 2012 and Tokyo Conference on Afghanistan The Tokyo Declaration; Ministry of Foreign Affairs Japan; July 8, 2012). Regarding war fatigue, Frederick Kagan mentioned quite an interesting fact that most of the Americans lived irrelevantly and uninterested in wars abroad. Throughout the Clinton, Bush, and Obama era, American debt has not risen by the war, according to Kagan. In other words, he says American people are hardly sacrificed by the war, and only 1% are eligible to complain of war burdens. His comment is quite symbolic as shown in the case that American media reported the news about Miley Cyrus 12 times more than that about Syria when Obama was persuading the congress to approve of bombing (“Americans prefer Miley to Syria stories by huge number”; USA Today; September 9, 2013).

Considering public apathy to the war in Afghanistan, it is necessary to educate them to understand why US presence is required. Quite surprisingly, Kinzinger told that 90% of Americans do not know Karzai is leaving office in a month or so. But fortunately, both second round contester Abdullah and Ghani are more positive to the BSA than Karzai. Jones outlines strategic imperatives for the United States to stay in Afghanistan from the following reasons. Al Qaeda and other terrorists are still rampant on the AF-Pak border, and they can attack the United States, Europe, and India from there. Also, he said that Jihadists would interpret US withdrawal their victory. Therefore, US and NATO allies must retain sufficient troops to curb Taliban and Al Qaeda, and train Afghan forces. However, the Obama administration recently hinted that the United States would leave less than 10,000, or even below 5,000 residual troops in Afghanistan, which is far smaller than recommendations by the ISAF commander General Joseph Dunford and other NATO generals (“Exclusive - U.S. force in Afghanistan may be cut to less than 10,000 troops”; Reuters News; April 22, 2014). If President Obama hopes to placate war -weary public, that is a fatal mistake as he made in Iraq. Currently, sectarian tensions between Shiite militias and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) are growing in Iraq, but American influence to mediate those disputes dropped sharply after 2011 withdrawal (“Historic Iraq Election Brings New Uncertainties”; Council on Foreign Relations; April 28,2014).

When we talk about the BSA and post Karzai Afghan security, it is necessary to give consideration to Afghan neighbors. As Jones noted in the event, Afghanistan’s neighboring stakeholders are nuclear or would be nuclear power, ie, Russia, China, India, Pakistan, and Iran. The power vacuum of whimsical Western withdrawal may lead India to intervene to fight against Jihadists, which could make Afghanistan another field of Indo-Pakistani clash like Kashmir, according to Kagan. More alarmingly, Iran explores to augment influence in Afghanistan after 2014. We have to bear in mind that Iran is the only country that blames the BSA in public, as they see this agreement a grave threat to their own security. Actually, Karzai is balancing America and Iran. When Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani visited Kabul to celebrate Nowruz, he told foreign troops to leave from this “occupied nation”(“Iranian President visits Kabul, describes Afghanistan an occupied nation”; Khaama Press; March 28, 2014). Though Abdullah and Ghani are positive to the BSA, Karzai’s influence will remain in political corridors in Kabul, and Iran seeks to penetrate there with a common cultural heritage.

Russia and China do not see the Western presence in Afghanistan preferable, in view of geopolitics in Central Asia. However, both of them need stability in Afghanistan and its neighborhood for fear of Islamic extremism. Let me talk about Russia. Since the Bush era, Kremlin regarded American air bases in Central Asia as an intrusion to their sphere. Along with China, Russia pressured US forces to leave there (“Q&A: U.S. Military Bases in Central Asia”; New York Times; July 26, 2005). Russia ratified a military base deal with Tajikistan, in order to edge out American influence in the region, and defend Central Asia from the instability of post-ISAF Afghanistan (“Ratification of Russian military base deal provides Tajikistan with important security guarantees”; Jane’s Intelligence Weekly; 1 October 2013). In Kyrgystan, while the United States uses the Manas base for logistical support for the war in Afghanistan, while Russia has one in Kant. For energy rich, but corrupt and poor Central Asian countries, American presence is a gift to save their economy (“The United States in Central Asia”; Economist; December 7, 2013). In view of troop cutback, the United States considers having additional drone bases in Centrak Asia to attack terrorist havens in Afghanistan and Pakistan. But the problem is not just objection from Russia and China. Three countries on the northern border of Afghanistan have drawbacks. Tajikistan is too pro-Russian. Uzbekistan has a serious human rights problem, and Turkmenistan is a permanently neutralized state (“Where In Central Asia Would The U.S. Put A Drone Base?”; Eurasia Net—The Bug Pit; February 17, 2014).

China worries not only encirclement by the United States, but also stimulus for Uyghur liberty, with strong US presence in Afghanistan and Central Asia. Due to economic growth, China has surpassed the United States as the largest oil importer in September last year (“China surpasses US as biggest oil importer”; New York Post; October 10, 2013). As a result, it has become increasingly vulnerable to unrests in Islamic nations in the Middle East and Central Asia, including Saudi Arabia, Iran, Kazakhstan, and so forth (“Fueling a New Order? The New Geopolitical and Security Consequences of Energy”; Brookings Institution; April 15, 2014). How can China balance the threat of Islamic uprisings and the challenge of US-led freedom? China wants to expand influence in Afghanistan after ISAF cutback, through mining contracts and development aids (“China emerges as key strategic player in Afghanistan”; Khaama Press; April 14, 2014). However, those Chinese business acitivities there shall never succeed without the security umbrella of the United States.

It is utterly wrong for America to choose whimsical Zero option simply for cost cutting, myopic disillusionment with political reform, and uninterest in the war. Karzai’s influence may remain, but Afghans are keenly aware of vital implications of the BSA for their future. In addition to bilateral aspects, strategic interactions among neighboring stakeholders need more attention. They do not necessarily see US presence in Afghanistan and Central Asia preferable, but it is the security umbrella of the United States that provides the public goods of regional security. As if illustrating such complicated games, India agreed to finance Afghanistan to buy Russian weapons this February (“India to finance Russian arms supply to Afghan security forces”; Khaama Press; February 18, 2014), while Prime Minister Manmohan Singh urged President Hamid Karzai to sign the BSA last December. President Obama reiterated strategic rebalance to Asia during his visit to East Asia this April, but disengagement from the Middle East shall never serve this objective. America must complete the mission as the superpower to help post-Karzai Afghanistan move toward stable democracy to make the world safe. That is far more important than Miley Cyrus isolationism.