The United States has enduring interests in South Asia that can be safeguarded and promoted by keeping a small military footprint concentrated in two bases leased from Afghanistan. We argue that negotiating to maintain a small, isolated security presence will have several advantages that outweigh the associated costs and are in line with the overall strategic objectives of the United States for the foreseeable future.
The Main Reason the United States Is Still in Afghanistan
First and foremost, after two decades of investments in lives, treasure, and political capital, the United States has to ensure that Afghanistan cannot revert back to an unchecked breeding ground for terrorists with international agendas and reach. The sole reason for the initial U.S.-led international intervention in Afghanistan was the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Even under the best-case scenarios, an intra-Afghan agreement is poised to lead to further fragmentation of central authority in Afghanistan, meaning growing opportunities for al-Qaida, the Islamic State-Khorasan Province, and similar outfits.
Second, under the best circumstances, a relatively stable Afghanistan free of any U.S. security presence will further enable the growing political, military, and economic reach of China and Russia, as well as Iran.
The Role of Afghanistan in Future of Major Power Competition
For Russia, an Afghanistan without a U.S. presence would allow it to expand its grip on the Central Asia states and either control or prevent the possibilities of any transportation of hydrocarbons from that region to South Asia and beyond — thus providing it further power on the flow of energy resources beyond what it is trying to achieve in Europe.
China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) initially circumvented Afghanistan, a country that represented a security risk. However, Afghanistan also represents an opportunity for mineral exploitation. As of late, Beijing has deepened its involvement in post-U.S. and NATO Afghanistan, and China is becoming more active in an ambitious drive to dominate Central Asia and Pakistan, and now Afghanistan, as part of the BRI. With China becoming a main focus of U.S. strategic concerns, abandoning an established military outpost in its southwestern proximity does not make strategic sense, despite the challenges of access Afghanistan presents.
Iran’s Strategic Depth
Should the United States exit Afghanistan without leaving any presence, Iran’s role in the country would likely resemble what is happening in Iraq and Syria, enabling Tehran to try to exert greater influence in the region. The more concerning issue for the United States would be Iran’s burgeoning strategic relations with China. While details of the deal between Beijing and Tehran remain opaque, there is evidence that the new strategic understanding has already affected India’s potential balancing role in Afghanistan. The plans by Kabul and New Delhi to allow landlocked Afghanistan a trade route with India that circumvented Pakistan through the Iranian Chabahar port has reportedly been halted, with China gaining access to the strategic port.
The initial and necessary objective of the war hangs on the balance of the conditions-based February 29, 2020 agreement signed in Doha. The Taliban are to provide “guarantees and enforcement mechanisms that will prevent the use of the soil of Afghanistan by any group or individual against the security of the United States and its allies.”
As the saying goes, the devil is in the details. How would a fragmented Taliban group politically associated with an even further divided government in Kabul after decades of fighting provide these guarantees? And the enforcing mechanisms are also unclear.
Proposed Strategic Military Presence in Afghanistan
Failure in Afghanistan would not only endanger the United States and its allies but also would severely damage the prestige and standing of the U.S. in an arena where China and Russia are expanding their influence. The rush to judgment for an negotiated exit with an untested adversary is understandable due to the fatigue and frustration with a fragmented government in Afghanistan and after almost two decades of war, which strategically at times seemed adrift. However, complete withdrawal has its risks.
The United States can much better guard against Afghanistan’s reversion to a terrorist operational zone by negotiating to maintain two bases from among those already in the country. The bases can be part of a transactional arrangement or a strategic understanding with Kabul. The main purpose of these bases would not be for training or even routine military assistance to Afghanistan’s National Security Forces, but rather for intelligence gathering, sharing with Afghan partners, and strategic positioning should terrorist outfits manage to organize themselves in ungoverned parts of the country. The U.S. could negotiate a measure to keep the Afghan authorities informed of terrorist activities and only act if the potential threat has an international or U.S. dimension and after the Afghan authorities have tried to manage the situation unsuccessfully or have procrastinated. In the former case, the United States can increase its assistance for needed operational or intelligence backing and on the latter case, take some sort of punitive measure. The bases would be self-sustaining, not open to locals, and with U.S. forces and personnel refraining from mixing with the general public. The future U.S. military and financial assistance to Afghanistan could be linked to the lease of these bases, the overflight rights, and other such arrangements.
We are under no illusion on the monetary costs associated with sustaining these outposts as well as the political and diplomatic challenges in making these bases part of the overall peace agreement with the Afghan and regional players. The Taliban’s fundamental demand for signing the peace agreement with the United States has been the complete withdrawal of foreign forces, and it would take herculean efforts to bring them to accept a foreign military footprint, however isolated and small it may be. However, the United States’ agreement to withdraw from Afghanistan is predicated on a “guarantee” that the Taliban can ensure against the use of Afghan soil for terrorist threats against the United States and its allies. Our arguments are based on the understanding that all Afghan sides — except the Taliban — most Central Asian and Gulf states, and India would welcome the continuation of a small U.S. footprint in Afghanistan and that the Taliban, or a part thereof, can be persuaded to see the benefits of a limited and isolated U.S. presence.
Contestation and Competition
Our argument for considering this option is not centered on Afghanistan, while there are valid reasons not to abandon the gains made there over the last 19 years. Our invitation for braver and broader thinking is based on the investments for years to come to compete with and, when necessary, counter the ambitions of China and Russia and the destructive and disruptive goals of states such as Iran. The future relationship of the United States and its allies with China and Russia would rarely rise to the level of direct conflict but is increasingly becoming confrontational. This is a long-term competition and requires long-term solutions and presence.
Beyond the security dimensions, the United States and its allies have a legacy and investment in Afghanistan. Abandoning that would not only present a negative image of both U.S. and NATO resolve and determination but also has the potential of empowering one or more of the West’s competitors.
This short essay is by no means meant to be comprehensive, nor are we unaware of the long list of challenges our idea presents. Our argument is an invitation for greater debate on the merits of keeping a small and isolated footprint in Afghanistan, both as a guarantor of the gains from the last two decades and as part of the long-term competition with China and Russia. Peace is the desire of the U.S. public, its allies, and, most importantly, the Afghans. The United States can partner with the Afghans in a nonintrusive manner, safeguarding their independence and its own security. The playbook of the relationship between Afghanistan and the United States has to change fundamentally, but the legacy of the countries’ bleeding together can lead to a genuine partnership for the good of both parties. Of course, there is also no guarantee that the intra-Afghan talks will prevail amicably. In that case, the idea of a reduced U.S. military presence may have a very different and necessary dimension. The two bases (or an alternative version thereof) cannot but increase the political maneuverability of the United States.
Major General Julian D. Alford, USMC, commanded 3d Battalion 6th Marine Regiment, and later was Director of Strategic Effects at the ISAF HQ, both during Operation Enduring Freedom, Afghanistan. His last tour in Afghanistan was as Commanding General of Task Force Southwest, Helmand and Nimroz Provinces, Afghanistan, during Operations Resolute Support and Freedom’s Sentinel.
Dr. Amin Tarzi, director of Middle East Studies at Marine Corps University since 2007, has been involved in Afghanistan’s affairs as a diplomat, scholar, international negotiator, and educator since mid-1980s. He is one of the originators of the 6+2 scheme for Afghanistan in 1993 and has written extensively on the subject.
DISCLAIMER: The opinions and conclusions expressed herein are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent the views of either the U.S. Marine Corps or any other U.S. governmental agency. Any references to this piece should include the foregoing statement.