America Can't Terror-Proof Afghanistan

Aerial mission at Multinational Base Tarin Kowt, Afghanistan. Flickr/DVIDSHUB

More U.S. troops in Afghanistan may result in more direct combat with the Taliban.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a conflict in possession of no military solution must be in want of more troops. Or so one would think from the recommendations on how to succeed in Afghanistan made by Gen. John Nicholson, the force commander in Afghanistan; Gen. Joseph Votel, commander of Central Command; and Republican senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham. More troops with “greater authorities” will “break” or “end” the stalemate that all agree exists. “Greater authorities” means putting U.S. troops back in direct combat with the Taliban and authorizing them to risk killing more Afghan civilians.

More troops may shift the terms of the stalemate slightly and make it last longer, though it will probably last as long as the United States wants to pay for it. With or without more troops, under the present strategy, the U.S. commitment would have to be eternal, because it does nothing to mitigate the geopolitical conditions that created an enabling environment for global terrorism in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region and which can be addressed only by political means. Terrorism is not caused by the existence of “terrorists,” and killing “terrorists” does not eradicate terrorism. The United States may define counterterrorism as its core interest in the region, but both those we label terrorists and those fighting them have political objectives rooted in the history of their societies. The Taliban were a product of the decades-long collapse of the Afghan state under the pressure of Cold War and regional rivalries. Al Qaeda, a product of the Arab world, developed in the ungoverned space created by war and support for, first, Afghan mujahidin fighting the Soviet Union and then the Taliban. The Islamic State, a product of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, has gained a foothold in Afghanistan by exploiting these same conditions.

Afghanistan has not been able to recover from the collapse of its state triggered by the 1979 Soviet-Afghan war, because the conflicts and shaky governments that followed could not address the core problem: Afghanistan is a landlocked state whose economy, ranked 172 out of 184 countries in gross domestic product per capita by the International Monetary Fund, cannot pay the cost of governing or defending a population scattered in enclaves separated by deserts and mountains. Since its demarcation in its current borders by the British and Russian empires at the end of the nineteenth century, the Afghan state has needed foreign subsidies to survive, and foreign subsidies—and troop deployments—extend the reach of the power that provides them, regardless of its stated objectives.

When a foreign power, whether British Empire, the Soviet Union, or the United States, supports a state and its army, its enemies and rivals may feel threatened. Afghanistan was stable, first, when the British and Russian empires agreed that the British would subsidize a strong centralized state; that this state would submit to British control of its foreign relations; and that the two great powers would not use Afghanistan to challenge each other’s spheres of influence in Persia (Iran), Bukhara (Central Asia) and India. During the first half of the Cold War, the United States and USSR, despite their global antagonism, worked out a modus vivendi in Afghanistan, under which each supported different sectors of the state and worked in different areas of the country. It was not difficult to maintain this agreement as long as the stakes in Afghanistan were relatively small.

That Afghanistan is landlocked has two additional consequences. First, support for Afghanistan by an offshore power like the United States requires the cooperation of neighbors with direct access to international waters or airspace, in this case Pakistan, Iran or Russia, which controls offshore access to Central Asia. Second, growth of Afghanistan’s economy requires cooperation with those and other neighbors for access to international investments and markets.

Given current U.S. relations with Iran and Russia, U.S. access to Afghanistan depends on the cooperation of Pakistan. That dependence is no less real for being problematic: Pakistan provides a safe haven for the Afghan Taliban leadership to pressure the United States and the Afghan government over the Indian presence in Afghanistan and Afghan claims on Pakistani territory. Many U.S. and Afghan analysts argue that pressure on Pakistan to abandon the Afghan Taliban is the solution to the Afghan conflict. As long as U.S. forces and personnel are in Afghanistan, however, U.S. logistical dependence on Pakistan places limits on how much Washington, DC can pressure Islamabad, Measures like sanctions, designation as a state sponsor of terror, cross-border attacks, or cancellation of bilateral assistance could lead Islamabad to cut U.S. supply lines. As long as U.S. relations with Russia and Iran preclude transit through those countries, the United States is stuck with Pakistan.

When Pakistan closed the military supply lines after a series of incidents in 2011, the United States supplied its forces in Afghanistan through Russia and Central Asia. It cannot do so now, and transit through Iran remains impossible. Pakistan is also better situated to resist U.S. unilateral pressure than before. As a result of Chinese construction of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) linking China’s western Xinjiang province to the Pakistani port of Gwadar on the Arabian Sea, Pakistan and China are closer than ever. China does not support Pakistan’s policy of sheltering the Taliban and would like to help the United States stabilize Afghanistan, but not through a confrontation with Pakistan. Russia and Iran have also grown closer to Pakistan as Indian prime minister Narendra Modi has strengthened ties with the United States.