Leaving Without Losing

The Diplomat speaks with Mark N. Katz, author of Leaving without Losing: The War on Terror After Iraq and Afghanistan, about how the U.S. withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan will impact the war on terror and the Asia-Pacific region.

In the book, you argue that the U.S. withdrawing from Afghanistan and Iraq might not be as detrimental to the larger war on terror as is often believed. In making this case, you draw parallels between the U.S. withdrawal from Indochina in the 1970’s and today. You note that despite some immediate successes, ultimately the Marxists did much to undermine their cause in the late 1970’s and 1980’s. What were some of the ways they did this and how might the Radical Islamists make comparable mistakes today?

After the U.S. withdrawal from Indochina at the beginning of 1973, Marxist forces came to power in several Third World countries later in the 1970’s, including South Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Ethiopia, Portuguese Africa (Angola, Mozambique, and Guinea-Bissau), Afghanistan, Nicaragua, and (briefly) Grenada. At the time these takeovers occurred, they appeared to represent important gains for Soviet power and influence. But as time went on, it became increasingly clear that the Soviets and their allies had become militarily bogged down in trying to defend weak pro-Soviet Marxist regimes in several of these countries – most notably Afghanistan, Angola, Ethiopia, Cambodia, and Nicaragua.  While certainly not the only factor doing so, this overextension of the Soviet Union and its allies in these Third World insurgencies contributed to the collapse of pro-Soviet communism and the Soviet Union itself in 1989-91.

Radical Islamist forces might also calculate that U.S. withdrawal now may be their opportunity to make gains. Iran, for example, might try to expand its influence in Iraq now that the U.S. has withdrawn from there. The impending U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan might be seen by Pakistan as an opportunity to extend its influence throughout that country through helping the radical Taliban movement return to power.  But if the United States couldn’t pacify Iraq and Afghanistan, it is doubtful that Iran and Pakistan – with much fewer resources – could do so.  Any attempt by Tehran to increase Iranian influence in Iraq will be resisted by the Kurds, the Sunni Arabs, and even some of the Shi’a Arabs.  Similarly, Afghanistan’s non-Pushtun communities (Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras, etc.) can be expected to resist the return to power of the Pushtun-dominated Taliban. And even if the Taliban gains strength in Afghanistan, there is no guarantee that it will be amenable to Pakistani influence. Iran and Pakistan, then, could end up in quagmires of their own. And just as with the Soviets and their allies earlier, these quagmires may help to undermine these regimes inside their own countries.

The Obama administration and the Karzai government have been seeking to reach a negotiated settlement with the Afghan Taliban for some time. Pakistan is often said to act as a spoiler in this process. One of the book’s boldest proposals is that after withdrawing, the U.S. might want to support the formation of a Pashtun state as a way of luring the Taliban away from Pakistan. Could the U.S. implement this strategy before it withdraws?

I must admit, I don’t seriously expect the U.S. government to even try to divide the Pushtuns from Pakistan through supporting the secession of Pakistan’s Pushtun regions adjacent to Afghanistan. Quite frankly, I don’t think that the U.S. government is sufficiently Machiavellian, or even imaginative, to do something like this. But especially at a time when the U.S. is withdrawing, it would do well to imitate the creative diplomacy of the Nixon-Kissinger era that took advantage of increasing Sino-Soviet animosity to improve relations with both China and the USSR.  The U.S. can once again take advantage of divisions among its adversaries – and even to exacerbate such divisions – for its own advantage. To not try to do so – or worse, to assume that it cannot be done – would be foolish.

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Speaking of Nixon and Kissinger’s opening to China, that move is often credited with helping the U.S. shore up its position in Asia as it withdrew from Indochina. Many people have said a comparable opening with Iran might bring similar benefits for the U.S. today. How likely do you think this is? What developments might facilitate it?

While an Iranian-American rapprochement could be highly beneficial to both Washington and Tehran, such a development is highly unlikely. So long as the U.S. prioritizes the Iranian nuclear issue, an Iranian-American rapprochement will not occur. Developments that could facilitate an Iranian-American rapprochement are the emergence of a common threat to both – such as the return of a hostile Taliban regime to power in Afghanistan.  This is something that could well happen. Another such development would be a successful democratic revolution in Iran. This seems unlikely, but so did the Arab Spring. Finally, a third development – ironically enough – might be the Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons. If this does occur, the U.S. – and everyone else – will have to adjust to this reality, just as has occurred with every other nation that has acquired nuclear weapons.

You argue in the book that China fears that the Taliban reoccupying Afghanistan will have negative repercussions for its control over its own Muslim population, the Uyghur people in Xinjiang Province. Beijing is, of course, also the “all weather friend” of Pakistan, the Taliban’s main backer. Can Beijing reconcile its diverging interests in supporting Pakistan to balance against India while at the same time not strengthening Taliban? Might China seek to use its influence with Pakistan to get it to cut off or reduce its support for the Taliban?

It’s highly doubtful that any Chinese effort to influence Pakistan to cut off or reduce support for the Taliban would succeed.  Pakistan fears that if the Taliban does not return to power in Afghanistan, a government willing to work with India against it will rule Afghanistan instead.  The Pakistanis can be expected to try to persuade the Chinese that the return of the Taliban is the best way to prevent India from gaining influence in Afghanistan to the detriment of both Islamabad and Beijing.

The real question is: Can China persuade Pakistan to persuade the Taliban not to support Uyghur oppositionists? Once it returns to power, the Taliban will be less amenable to Pakistani influence than it is now. Emotionally, the Taliban will very much want to support their Uyghur brothers. The Chinese are likely to think this is happening even if it is not. The issue, then, will be whether China will use force against Afghanistan if it supports (or is believed to support) the Uyghurs. I’m not a China expert, but I think that this is unlikely.

In the book, you discuss a number of troubling hotspots that, although distinct, are linked to the larger war on terror. One such hotspot is Yemen where al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has established a sanctuary in the Southern part of the country. Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported that the Obama administration is loosening the guidelines for approving drone strikes in that country. In the book you argue a military occupation of Yemen would be counterproductive. Is the same true of drone strikes and, if so, what type of policies might find greater success?

The trouble with drone strikes, as we have seen in Pakistan, is that they often lead to collateral damage.  Innocent victims – in the eyes of the people in the countries where drone strikes occur – are killed in them. This only leads to animosity toward the country undertaking these strikes.  While eliminating terrorists is a good thing, creating animosity that leads to new recruits is not.

If the U.S. is serious about reducing the influence of AQAP in southern Yemen, it needs to help improve the situation of the majority of the people living there. Preferably, this would be done through working with the Sana’a government. But if it’s unwilling or unable to do so, then the people of southern Yemen – as well as U.S. interests – might be better served through supporting the peaceful restoration of South Yemeni independence. The more that the majority of the population’s demands are met, the less opportunity AQAP will have to gain support from it.

You note that despite the negative consequences the withdrawal from Afghanistan might have for the U.S. itself, it is “likely to have much more negative consequences for Russia, China, and India (p 121).” What strategies are these countries adopting or likely to adopt to hedge against this threat?

After the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, Russia is likely to do what it did before the U.S. intervened in October 2001: provide military support to the non-Pushtun northerners in resisting the Pushtun-dominated Taliban. It would not be surprisingif India joined Russia in doing so.  China, of course, will want to preserve its relationship with Pakistan. If the Pakistani-supported Taliban support the Uyghurs or undertake other actions harmful to Chinese interests, however, Beijing will ultimately have to weigh the costs and benefitsof continuing to support Pakistan or of cooperating with Russia and India in containing the common Pakistani threat to all three.