Afghanistan: Deciphering US Intentions – Analysis


By Dr Subhash Kapila

The United States policy establishment, its political establishment and its strategic community have lately been engrossed in an active debate on the future US strategy that should be delineated in light of two major factors. The first factor was the commitment made by President Obama in 2009 that US Forces would begin a drawback from July 2011 onwards, The second factor has been the targeted liquidation of Osama bin Laden by US Special Forces last month.

Taking the second factor first, it needs to be stated that the single event of Osama bin Laden’s liquidation does not materially change the operational situation in Afghanistan for US Forces in Afghanistan. Al Qaeda’s Commander-in-Chief may have been liquidated but the remainder of the Al Qaeda hierarchy and their associates continue to thrive in safe havens provided by the Pakistan Army in places like Quetta and North Waziristan.

Additionally the Afghan Taliban, the root of all evil in Afghanistan continues to enjoy sanctuaries in and around Quetta in Pakistan, kind courtesy of Pakistan Army, their progenitors. It is strategically unwise for the United States to view the Taliban as ‘Good Taliban’ and ‘Bad Taliban’. They are chips of the same block and this differentiation was advanced by General Musharraf to protect his strategic assets, the Afghan Taliban as the ‘Good Taliban’ amenable to reconciliation.

Afghanistan will continue to be destabilized by both the entities mentioned above in collusion and connivance with the Pakistan Army. This is an irrefutable ground reality that all segments of the United States establishment need to seriously take note of.

Moving to President Obama’s declaration of drawing back US Forces from Afghanistan from July 2011 onwards, the point that needs to be made is that it was a declaration of intent which necessarily was to be determined by ground realities obtaining in Afghanistan in July 2011. The intent was not for a US military exit from Afghanistan in July 2011 but the likely commencement of a process.

A third factor which needs to be considered as an over-riding factor in any US plans for draw-back of forces from Afghanistan is the shape of political stability and security in Pakistan and the attitudinal predilections of the Pakistan Army towards US military postures and strategy in Afghanistan.

Superimposing on all of the above factors would be the individual perceptions and readings on Afghanistan and Pakistan of the leading lights of the Obama Administration. There is already a policy divide between Vice President Biden and his group which maintains that the basic operative strategy of the United States in Afghanistan should be based on “counter-terrorism” which would entail minimum deployment of US Forces in Afghanistan and no nation-building commitments.

US senior military commanders like General Petraeus currently commanding US Forces in Afghanistan and designated as the next CIA Chief maintain that the basic US strategy in Afghanistan should be based on “counter-insurgency” based on headway made by US Forces in Southern Afghanistan lately. This would entail a larger commitment of US Forces in Afghanistan and also involve an element of nation-building.

This Paper intends to decipher US intentions on Afghanistan and the unfolding of US strategies on Afghanistan in the following time frames:

  • United States Afghanistan Strategy in the US Presidential Election Year till 2012
  • United States Declaratory Intentions to Stay Embedded in Afghanistan Till 2014
  • United States Likely Intentions & Strategy Beyond 2014
  • Three Major Imponderables that could Swing US Intentions and Strategy.

United States Afghanistan Strategy in the US Presidential Election Year Till 2012

President Obama has already announced his decision to run for office as President for a second term in 2012. A major factor that would come into play in presidential election politics would be his declaratory policy made in 2009 that he would order a draw-down of US Forces from Afghanistan commencing July 2011.

Coupled with this intention and lending further weight to its implementation would be domestic political pressures within his own Democratic Party that since Osama bin Laden stands liquidated a major draw-down of US Forces should be that much more possible.

President Obama can therefore be expected to order a draw-down in US Forces in Afghanistan commencing July 2011. The operative word is ‘draw-down” and not a full-scale US military exit from Afghanistan.

A safe bet on the quantum of US Forces that could be reduced from Afghanistan would be about 30,000 to 40,000.This is the quantum of US Forces that President Obama ordered deployed in 2009 as part of his “surge strategy”.

This would still leave about 70,000 US troops still deployed in Afghanistan to ensure its stability and security.

With such a quantum of US Forces being recalled to the United States, President Obama would have fulfilled his intentions declared in 2009, deflect any domestic criticism in a presidential election year of not living upto his pledges and at the same time not endangering Afghanistan’s security substantially.

To dissuade Pakistan Army from exploiting the reduction of US troops stated through its surrogates of the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani terrorist combines, the United States will pressurize the Pakistan Army to launch the long withheld operations in Northern Waziristan.

Additionally, the United States is most likely to intensify its drone-strikes in the frontier regions of Pakistan which house Pakistan Army sanctuaries for the Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

United States Declaratory Intentions to Stay Embedded in Afghanistan Till 2014

This was an important follow-up development to the declared US intentions to drawing-down US Forces from July 2011 onwards. It had multiple significances from the strategic point of view which need a bit more elaboration.

The first significance in declaratory terms was that the United States would not be hustled out of Afghanistan by any destabilization and disruptive intensification by the Al Qaeda and Taliban backed by the Pakistan Army. Prompting US military fatigue in Afghanistan and a hasty US military exit was an essential component of the Afghan strategy of the Pakistan Army.

Secondly and associatedly, it could be a significant pointer that the United States after all may not be inclined to offer Afghanistan on a plate to the Pakistan Army for its strategy of strategic depth. Also in the future it is quite likely that events in Pakistan may prompt the United States to revise its perceptions that the strategic significance of Afghanistan outweighs that of Pakistan in the US strategic calculus.

Thirdly, this two year time frame, free from the compulsions of presidential election year politics could enable implementation of more forceful US strategies in Afghanistan, build-up of a sizeable combat-efficient Afghan National Army and visible US-aided reconstruction activity.

The United States can be expected to maintain US Force levels in Afghanistan during the period 2013-2014 between 60,000 to 70,000, Of course, if the Afghanistan situation improves dramatically improves then the United States has the flexibility of further reductions.

Contrarily, the United States has to be prepared for increased “force surges” to Afghanistan as this time frame is critical for Pakistan’s domestic stability with dangers of the Pakistan Army besieged from all directions resorting to military adventurism.

United States Likely Intentions & Strategy Beyond 2014

United Sates intentions and strategy beyond 2014, if prudently formulated should rest on one solid premise and that the US gains made in Afghanistan so laboriously achieved and that too against a Pakistan Army determined to double-time the United States for a decade, should not be frittered away.

Afghanistan after a second United States involvement in a span of three decades illustrates that a secure and stable Afghanistan under a “US SECURITY UMBRELLA” is vital for United States overall national security interest in South Asia, the Gulf Region and Central Asia.

“A stable and secure Afghanistan in which US Forces stay embedded in Afghanistan under a Mutual Security Treaty like those with Japan and South Korea would ensure that the United States is not displaced from the heartland of Asia. United States future strategic blueprint on Afghanistan cannot be premised on transactional relationship or spasmodic engagement”. This was the recommendation made by this Author on 17 May 2011 in his SAAG Paper No 4495 entitled “Afghanistan 2011: Imperatives for United States to Recast its Strategic Blueprint.

Reinforcing the above recommendation was the Project Report on 25 May 2011 by the Center For New American Society, USA entitled “Beyond Afghanistan: A Regional Security Strategy for South and Central Asia.”. This Report on 25 May 2011 carried a recommendation that the United States should negotiate a Strategic Partnership Agreement with the Government of Afghanistan.

So beyond 2014, the United States would be well advised to maintain a Forward Military Presence in Afghanistan numbering about 30,000 to 40.000 US troops as part of a US-Afghanistan Mutual Security Treaty. This would act both as a deterrent and as a base for US surges to cater for regional threats.

Three Major Imponderables That Could Swing United States Intentions & Strategy

The best of intentions and strategies could take a swing with the coming into play of imponderables and which need to be factored-in in any long term formulation of any strategy.

Related to the United States intentions and strategy for Afghanistan the three major imponderables that could come into play and swing the blueprint outlined above can be briefly outlined as (1) Another 9/11 type of attack on the United States (2) A major natural catastrophe afflicting Afghanistan, and (3) The disintegration of Pakistan or Pakistan Army actively playing “The China Card” against the United States.

To insure United States long range strategic interests in the heartland of Asia and further to combat the emergence of the imponderables outlined above, the imperatives of a US-Afghanistan Mutual Security Treaty is a prime requirement both for the United States and Afghanistan.

A US-Afghanistan Mutual Security Treaty becomes a pressing need in relation to Pakistan Army playing “The China Card” against the United States or the very disintegration of Pakistan, a likelihood which cannot be ruled out. Both such contingencies would present serious strategic and military challenges to United States regional and global leadership. A Forward Military Presence of the United States in Afghanistan would be both a deterrent and a force for regional stability dissuading designs of the Pakistan-China nexus.

In this connection it needs to be recalled that US Forward Military Presence in Japan and South Korea has deterred the North Korea-China axis from disturbing regional peace in North East Asia.

Concluding Observations

Afghanistan should no longer be measured in terms of United States Cold War strategic fixations where Pakistan outweighed Afghanistan’s strategic importance. Today the geopolitical and geostrategic significance of Afghanistan far outweighs that of Pakistan in the context of the evolving strategic challenges for the United States in Greater South West Asia..

The United States rode to Kabul in 2001 to displace the Pakistan-installed Taliban and Al Qaeda regime on the shoulders of the Afghan people. Unlike Pakistan, which is overwhelmingly ant-American for more than two decades, the people of Afghanistan are not so. As one American expert on Pakistan put it that the Pakistan Army is less radicalized but more anti-American than ever before.

That itself should help the United States to decide as to where it should park its strategic trust and where should it make long term strategic investments. Economically, a stabilized Afghanistan with American security guarantees and aid could emerge as the focal point of oil and gas pipelines and the royalties from such an energy grid would ensure the economic viability of Afghanistan.

Economics should therefore not dissuade the United States from providing a ‘Security Umbrella” for Afghanistan through the medium of a Mutual Security Treaty and a US Forward Military Presence.

United States-Afghanistan Mutual Security Treaty is a strategic imperative for both countries and the process should start now to give it concrete shape. It would be a strong signal to all those concerned to lay off Afghanistan so that it can emerge as a viable democratic moderate Islamic state.

(The author is an International Relations and Strategic Affairs analyst. He is Consultant, Strategic Affairs with South Asia Analysis Group. Email: [email protected])


SAAG is the South Asia Analysis Group, a non-profit, non-commercial think tank. The objective of SAAG is to advance strategic analysis and contribute to the expansion of knowledge of Indian and International security and promote public understanding.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *