We still need U.S. bases in Afghanistan

A U.S. soldier from Dragon Troop of the 3rd Cavalry Regiment walks out of a building at forward operating base Gamberi in the Laghman province of Afghanistan (REUTERS/Lucas Jackson).

On Feb. 9, a U.S. drone strike in Afghanistan’s Helmand province killed Abdul Rauf, an Islamic State leader attempting to spread the would-be caliphate’s influence into South Asia. While key operational details have not been made public, we can make reasonable educated guesses based on past patterns: Most likely, the drone flew out of Kandahar Airfield, some 60 miles away , after days or weeks of surveillance by other unmanned aircraft. Further, some of the information used to find Rauf may have come from a joint U.S.-Afghan special forces raid against an al-Qaeda leader, Abu Bara al-Kuwaiti, in Nangarhar province in October. According to the New York Times, that raid not only killed Kuwaiti but also netted a computer chock-full of information on other extremists.

All of the above-noted U.S. resources — armed drones, surveillance assets, commandos — would have to be withdrawn from Afghanistan by the end of next year under President Obama’s plan to zero out combat units in that country before he leaves the White House. Attacks against the United States’ most dangerous enemies would be much less effective in South Asia thereafter, because there is no other good place from which to stage them. The alternative would probably be to use aircraft carriers many hundreds of miles away in the Arabian Sea. Those distances would exceed the combat radius of almost all U.S. drones, require any helicopters making the trip to refuel in flight and add hours-long delays to missions. They also necessitate flying over countries that may not grant permission to use their airspace under such circumstances.

The Obama administration has the wrong mind-set on our future U.S. military posture in Afghanistan. Exit should not be the strategy or objective. Protection of the homeland is the right metric. Instead of trying to leave by a given date, we should be planning to stay. The guiding philosophy should be to build an enduring partnership with Afghanistan to finally provide a real payoff for all our investment there — in durable bases allowing our forces to continue to target our most dangerous enemies in a part of the world where they still organize and operate.

Such counterterrorism capabilities have little to do with the nation-building enterprise in Afghanistan of the past 13 years. That mission is nearly done to a practical extent, and while Obama is being ambitious in his hopes that it can be finished before 2017, there is logic in trying to largely complete the job by then. There is, however, little logic in eliminating our regional counterterrorism capability by that point. We will almost surely still need it. We should have learned from recent experiences in Iraq and Syria, as well as Libya, Mali and other countries, that we cannot end the terrorist threat in a given country on our own timetable.

Of course, the pace of drone strikes and raids in the Pashtun areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan, historically used by al-Qaeda and affiliates, can and should decline. Indeed, according to the Long War Journal, it already has — for example, after peaking at more than 100 in 2010, the number of U.S. drone attacks in Pakistan fell to 24 in 2014. But some need endures. Moreover, if extremists knew that the United States no longer had capabilities in the Pashtun belts, they would probably increase their presence there.

It is not realistic for the United States to expect Afghan forces to pursue al-Qaeda and its offshoots for us after we leave the country. First, Afghanistan has no capability to fly drones in Pakistan; even if we could successfully transfer the needed assets and expertise to the Afghans, an unlikely prospect, such strikes would probably cause a crisis in Afghan-Pakistani relations. Second, inside their own country, Afghanistan’s army and police will continue to have their hands full with the Taliban. They may not have the capacity to go after key al-Qaeda-linked targets, many of which matter much more to us than to them.

Keeping two to three U.S. bases in eastern Afghanistan — Bagram near Kabul, Kandahar in the south, perhaps Khost or Jalalabad in the east — would be adequate for counterterrorism purposes. With two or three operating areas, each with 1,000 to 2,000 Americans, the United States would have assets within 150 miles or less of the key areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan. That is a comfortable tactical operating distance for both drones and helicopters carrying commandos.

Maintaining these bases might cost $5 billion to $10 billion per year. That is real money, but it is less than the effective cost of keeping naval assets in the Arabian Sea to do the same job much less well. It is far less than the $100 billion a year we spent at the peak of the war. And it is immeasurably less than the cost that could result from another large-scale terrorist attack against the United States.

Although the main purpose of such an enduring U.S. military presence in Afghanistan would be counterterrorism, there could be additional benefits. We could continue to mentor modest numbers of Afghan forces at those bases, above and beyond the training mission that will continue in Kabul under Obama’s plan. These added forces could also provide us with political leverage that could reduce the chances of civil war in Afghanistan. This is the kind of leverage that we lost in Iraq after our 2011 departure — with tragic results.

With this approach, Obama will still have ended the main combat phase of two major wars on his watch. This legacy would be secure. More important, the United States would be more secure, too.

This opinion originally appeared in The Washington Post.

Publication: The Washington Post
Image Source: © Lucas Jackson / Reuters





Musharraf admits that Pakistani proxies fought in Afghanistan — so what does that tell us about where Pakistan is today?

By George Minde
Best Defense guest columnist

Former Pakistani leader Pervez Musharraf made some news Friday with his public admission that Pakistan has supported insurgent “proxies” in Afghanistan. He also claimed that India had been supporting proxies as well and called for both sides to stop. “In President Karzai’s times, yes, indeed, he was damaging Pakistan and therefore we were working against his interest. Obviously we had to protect our own interest. . . . Pakistan had its own proxies, India had its proxies, which is unhealthy. I do admit this, it is most unhealthy. It is not in favour of Afghanistan, or Pakistan or India. It must stop,” he said. Musharraf didn’t refer to the Haqqani Network, the Taliban, or any other groups by name.

I hear you muttering, ‘ok, tell us something that we didn’t know.’ Considering Musharraf’s continuing strong ties to the Pakistani army, however, it is interesting that he is choosing to admit this publicly now. At the risk of sounding like someone promulgating those wild conspiracy theories so common to South Asia, one possible interpretation is that his statements could indicate that the Pakistani military is actually starting to move away from support for Haqqani and other groups operating in Afghanistan.

Seven years out of power, Musharraf’s comments don’t put the reputation of the military’s current leadership at risk. And as Musharraf is talking specifically about his time in power, while he implies that support continued after 2008, his comments are vague enough that they could support a later narrative of ‘we did that under Musharraf, but we moved away from that between 2008 and now.’ With his simultaneous references to past and current Indian proxies in Afghanistan, Musharraf also asserts moral equivalency between Pakistan’s and India’s actions, absolving the army of potential blame for the policy while reinforcing the army’s core raison d’être. And if this does indicate a shift in policy, Musharraf’s ‘visionary’ call for ending support to proxies, could assist in his political rehabilitation — also in the Army’s interests.

The United States, more enamored of India than of Pakistan by far, is eager to put its sojourn in the Hindu Kush behind it. This and Karzai’s departure eases Pakistan’s fears of possible encirclement and makes dealing with Kabul more attractive than before. Pakistan seems to see in President Ghani someone it can work with. Cooperation between Islamabad and Kabul is the best it has been since 2001, and Kabul has been slowly distancing itself from India, for example recently reaffirming a decision from October to suspend a request for military equipment from India.

Meanwhile, as the United States acts out its traditional script of treating Pakistan as a friend only when it needs Pakistan’s help, China and Pakistan are strengthening their steady, long-standing relationship. China, with its copper, oil, and other concessions, has a vested interest in Afghanistan’s stability, and has doubled down by supporting development projects, such as the Kunar dam project, in some fairly dodgy areas. Pakistan is pushing to implement the long-delayed TAPI (Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India) gas pipeline project and has also pledged to construct a rail line from Chaman to Kandahar and roads in the east (some of which will also receive support from China). None of these projects are likely to come to fruition with the current levels of instability in Afghanistan. China hosted a Taliban delegation for talks last November, and China has recently offered to mediate peace talks, a move which Pakistan supports. They are certainly talking the talk regarding stability in Afghanistan and are pledging to put money on the table, which will require that stability to have a payoff.

Finally, as TTP and other militancy in Pakistan continues, the Army and ISI may be assessing the opportunity cost of supporting the Taliban and others and deciding that benefits are no longer worth the costs. While Pakistan has traditionally had only relatively nominal control over the tribal areas, the violence of the last decade — the TTP takeover of the Swat valley, attacks on targets in Karachi, Lahore, and other areas well outside of Khyber-Pakhtunkwa and FATA, targeting of elders and other civilians — is far outside of the traditional norm. These groups have received inspiration and support from the Taliban and the Haqqani Network. Although in the past the Haqqani leadership has used their influence to broker truces between Islamabad and the TTP and to steer the TTP’s efforts towards Afghanistan, their ability – or willingness – to do so has been waning. China’s concern over Uighur militants sheltering in the Haqqani stomping grounds of Waziristan and receiving support was also a significant factor in Pakistan’s decision to launch Operation Zarb-e-Azb last summer. The Pakistani army may have reached the conclusion that truly defeating the TTP, rather than just periodically ‘mowing the grass,’ will require neutralizing groups it previously supported in Afghanistan. Or at the very least weakening those organizations enough to enable Rawalpindi to put them on a very, very tight leash.

Pakistan’s warning about Operation Zarb-e-Azb in North Waziristan before it began last June has been criticized for giving Haqqani leaders and fighters an opportunity to escape. It is worth noting, however, that the Pakistani army has given similar warnings prior to operations in Swat, Kurram, and other TTP-held areas without Haqqani influence, so it would be a mistake to read too much into this. Unlike previous operations, however, Pakistan has begun announcing airstrikes against Haqqani fighters — the first in November a week after Ghani visited Islamabad, and more recently during the last week of January. These could be isolated attacks made for international consumption, or perhaps even completely fabricated — or they could actually represent a change in policy relative to Haqqani and other groups. Pakistan also added the Haqqani Network and others to the list of banned organizations last month. While this could easily be mere window-dressing like earlier bans of Lashkar-e-Taiba and other groups, the apparent active targeting of Haqqani in Waziristan calls for a bit more serious consideration before dismissing it as an empty gesture.

This isn’t to say that Pakistan is turning away from its proxies in Afghanistan. There’s not enough evidence of action to back that up, and in my mind the jury is still out. But the reasons for Pakistan’s security establishment to consider such a shift are the strongest they have been since the rise of the Taliban in the 1990s. Given the plausible deniability it provides the current army leadership, Musharraf would be a good stalking horse for floating such a change in policy while admitting past misdeeds.

Time will tell. I hope.

George Minde is a former Army strat planner and Af/Pak hand with two deployments to Afghanistan, most recently to Paktika and Khost. He retired from the Army last year. 

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