Shifting goalposts

Published July 20, 2021
The writer is a journalist.
The writer is a journalist.

IN the beginning of July, US President Joe Biden did a press talk on the drawdown of forces from Afghanistan. During the question-and-answer session, he was asked about the Afghan women’s apprehensions. He answered by narrating a trip he made to a girls’ school in Afghanistan where he told the students “… the United States came here to make sure that we got this terrorist, Osama bin Laden, and that terrorists didn’t amass again to — to go after our country. And then we’re going to have to leave”. When a student responded by saying she wanted to become a doctor and feared that she would not be able to do so if the US left, he added that this was why the US had spent money and effort in training the Afghan forces to defend women’s rights.

In other words, the president was saying that ensuring a safe environment for the people of Afghanistan was not the responsibility of American forces as such.

But the US policy has never been as clear-cut as the president made it out to be and neither is this withdrawal from Afghanistan. As the troops are pulled out and the debate in the US focuses on what will happen next in the country (offering continued engagement as policy prescription again and again), it is worth asking if this ‘withdrawal’ is little more than a shift from direct to indirect intervention.

After all, this is not the first time it has happened.

Afghanistan is one place where proxy war by regional and bigger powers has always been a constant.

After the withdrawal from Vietnam, the US went through a similar rethink, which aimed at avoiding direct military intervention, despite considerable pressure at times. Be it Operation Desert Storm or the civil war in Bosnia, Washington shunned a lengthy boots-on-the-ground entanglement. And the policy was carried forward by multiple administrations; questions were raised when the American forces withdrew without removing Saddam Hussein after liberating Kuwait and later Bill Clinton was criticised for what was seen as a less-than-adequate response to terror attacks such as the one on the embassies in Africa.

But this changed with 9/11, which gave those clamouring for greater on-the-ground intervention a chance. It is important to remember the neocons were around at the time of Bush senior and pushing for regime change in the Middle East but 9/11 provided the chance for them to implement these policies. Hence, Afghanistan was followed by Iraq and the grand plan was to not just take out the bad guys but also ‘tame’ the locals.

So, the US stayed on in Afghanistan — boots on the ground — for introducing democracy and nation building. And then it followed suit in Iraq. The logic was that the US had to confront terrorism threats globally through military force, even before a threat materialised.

Little of this changed under Barack Obama; even though he pulled troops out of Iraq, the intervention in Afghanistan continued as did the air and drone strikes in the Middle East as well as special forces’ operations.

In addition, countries had to be re-engineered, under the slogan of ‘nation building’. Money was poured into Afghanistan and Iraq for development projects while the Iraqi army was disbanded and rebuilt. Security forces were put together and trained in Afghanistan — it is said they will continue to be trained after the withdrawal.

This turned into a 20-year-long project, even though the withdrawal from Iraq happened shortly after Obama became president and the one from Afghanistan has been due since. But did it keep the US safe?

Explainer: When is the US war in Afghanistan really over?

To be fair, no major terror attack has taken place in the US since 2001. But whether or not this is due to the military interventions is unclear. Around the world, the number of Islamist terrorist groups has increased and many argue the Daesh would not have emerged but for the intervention in Iraq. In addition, terrorist attacks in countries the US intervened in have increased — Iraq is an example as is Syria. And by some accounts, the number of terrorist attacks in the West have increased as well.

This as well as the growing realisation of the failure of nation building and the increasing economic burden at home has led to a change in US policy. Despite Donald Trump’s being the aberration, rather than the norm, his policy on withdrawal and negotiations with the Taliban has been carried forward by Biden.

But this withdrawal basically means the US is switching from a more direct boots-on-the-ground approach to an indirect one.

Economic assistance will continue; Afghanistan continues to be one of the biggest beneficiaries of US aid, for the moment, and this money is needed to keep the government and the Afghan security forces intact. And as in Syria and Iraq, air strikes will be used in Afghanistan as well. That there is considerable clamour in the US about not abandoning the Afghan people and the gains made since 2001, means force will continue to be used — from a distance. It will be used against groups such as Daesh but also in support of the Kabul government. What it will achieve is less clear, for the withdrawal of troops from Iraq and the use of airpower in Iraq and Syria has not brought more stability to the countries.

But what if the current negotiations in Doha lead to some kind of compromise and a change in government in Kabul? Or the Taliban overrun Kabul? Either of these will add more complexity to the indirect intervention and may lead to a Syria like situation where the US is backing groups on the ground.

After all, this too is established that indirect interventions tend to allow proxies to grow stronger. The entire effort in Afghanistan against the Soviet invasion was fought by proxies, and at present, Syria is one such place where the US as well as others are supporting different groups.

Afghanistan is one place where proxy war by regional and bigger powers has always been a constant; Pakistan is just one player among many. Instead of just looking at the 1990s, perhaps present-day Middle East may also provide a sense of what is to come in Afghanistan.

The writer is a journalist.

Published in Dawn, July 20th, 2021

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