My op-ed column on Outlook Feb 16
February 15, 1989
It has been 22 years since February 15, 1989, when the last Soviet soldiers had left Afghanistan. Lieut. Gen. Gromov, the commander of the Soviet forces in Afghanistan, crossed the Friendship Bridge on border with Uzbekistan after 9 years and 50 days of war and bloodbath in this country. Russian Ambassador in Kabul Andrey Avetisyan had written an article on this newspaper the other day saying “a Russian soldier will never set his foot on the Afghan soil.” It shows the strong regrets of coming to Afghanistan, felt even today after 22 years of withdrawal. What a Russian diplomat should always say, Mr. Avetisyan added “wrong perceptions of the Soviet rulers, terrible miscalculation of the situation, absolute misunderstanding of the country, its traditions and the sense of dignity of its people brought tragic consequences and a lot of suffering to both nations.”
But as Afghans, we also need to review that era from a self-critical perspective. The so-called Mujahideen “victory” is always hyped not only in the flimsy history books by veteran Jihadis, but also by our serious writers and official books. If it was not the stinger missiles & US dollars through Operation Cyclone and Pakistan’s guerilla training to Mujahideen, the situation would have been different. Like insurgents say nowadays that the presence of US and NATO troops is the root cause of conflicts, the Mujahideen were also saying the same in those days that Soviet withdrawal will bring peace. But Afghans witnessed even more bloodbath after the Soviet withdrawal with the factional civil war of Mujahideen among themselves, followed by the rise of Taliban who provided shelter and supported global terrorists making Afghanistan an epicenter of world terrorism, albeit through the proxy wars of our neighbors.
Nowadays there are debates among Afghan intellectuals, analysts and lawmakers on TV talk shows about the 2014 drawdown and gradual withdrawal deadline of the US and NATO troops from Afghanistan. Some Western pundits compare the collapse of Soviet Union after a decade in Afghanistan with predictions of a similar fate to the US, which is kind of a daydream in the anti-war mantra. There are two scenario comparison of the Soviet withdrawal of 1989 with 2014 of the US and NATO, though the contexts are very different. One is the anti-war mantra of Soviet collapse lesson for the US, the other, less discussed, is Afghanistan becoming an epicenter of world terrorism after a full US and NATO withdrawal, as happened after 1989 when this country was left on its own, and at the mercy of our neighbors.
For the US and NATO, a post-withdrawal unstable Afghanistan without making sure Al-Qaeda and Taliban will not be able to make a strong comeback and turn the country into a launching pad for another 9/11, is more of a serious threat than the costs and sacrifices of staying until this country stands on its feet with capability of security control. The serious debate and analysis of think-tanks in Washington about the withdrawal often underestimate the possibility of Al-Qaeda reviving in Afghanistan.
With the reluctance of Pakistan military to launch operation in North Waziristsan–the hub of Taliban, Al-Qaeda and other global Jihadis from Central Asia and Caucasus–an Al-Qaeda revival and strong Taliban comeback in Afghanistan is very possible, if the US and NATO troops start a complete and fast withdrawal from 2014. Not all the Taliban and Al-Qaeda commanders are in safe havens of tribal areas in Pakistan, but many have gone underground in Afghanistan too.
Even common Afghans do not believe the confidence of President Karzai or our Defense Ministry officials asserting that Afghan forces are capable of security transition. Last week an Afghan woman in a televised debate about security transition asked a question from General Murad Ali, commander of Afghanistan National Army’s ground forces. “You can’t even secure the capital despite the presence of thousands of foreign forces. How will you secure the country when they leave?”, asked the woman while responding to Gen. Murad’s confidence about security control after withdrawal.
Permanent US Military Bases
Since last week, when President Karzai after arrival from Munich Security Conference confirmed that the US is seeking to establish permanent military bases in Afghanistan, the debate of security transition in Kabul is more intense. Those asking for early withdrawal, call it a hypocrisy after the announcement of 2014 deadline. But there are about 50,000 US troops in Iraq, after the heavy drawdown reducing the troops to a lower number. That’s actually what was requested by Iraqi leaders, and the same should have been requested by Afghanistan before the US asking to stay with some permanent military bases.
President Karzai was saying his Government is negotiating with Americans about the bases, adding that “long-term relationship with the US is in the interest of Afghanistan.” He said “the US bases will not be used against other countries and that Afghanistan is not a place from where our neighbors could be threatened.” It’s the opposite. We are threatened by the proxy wars and outside interferences of neighbors.
Permanent US military bases will not only ensure Taliban from safe havens of North Waziristan don’t make a strong comeback, and Al-Qaeda revive and use Afghanistan as a launching pad, but it also ruins the dreams of those seeking “strategic depth” in Afghanistan by keeping the options of good and bad or the “Pakistani Taliban” and “Afghan Taliban” harbored across the border in tribal safe havens. Other than groupings and areas of influence, distinguishing between the Pakistani and Afghan Taliban is misleading in broader sense. Afghanistan even being much stronger and with better security forces, cannot resist the regional interferences from outside, and permanent US military bases will do the job.
However, President Karzai said the permanent bases would need to be approved by the parliament and the Loya Jirga. Parliament is alright, but the Loya Jirga addition is more of a bargaining tactic. If the elected representatives of masses from both lower and upper houses of the parliament approve that, a Loya Jirga is not important. I doubt President Karzai might ask the US not to oppose changes in the Afghan constitution to make himself eligible for another term. The President has the traditional means of influence on the members of Loya Jirga, and they can be a used as a rubberstamp for bargaining.
Already there is increasing support. Defense Minister Rahim Wardak has supported permanent US bases saying “without doubt it ensures long-term security of Afghanistan.” Many known Afghan analysts have supported on TV talk shows. Even very conservative MPs from lower house have voiced support for permanent American military bases. MP from Kandahar Khalid Pashtun was saying, “US military bases would help prevent neighboring countries from interfering into the country’s internal affairs.” Another MP Gul Badshah Majidi has said, “Since Afghanistan is a weak country compared to Iran and Pakistan, there is a great need for foreign troops’ presence that may last long.”
The day President Karzai mentioned about the permanent US bases in press conference after returning from Munich Security Conference, the official Iranian news agency carried a report from Kabul saying “Now with the US planning to have permanent military bases here, more such deaths are expected.” The Iranian media quotes ghost Afghans talking against US military bases. A PressTV report from Kabul said, “Political experts are also of the same view. They describe the US plan as very dangerous. They want the US to quit Afghanistan immediately.” I don’t know who these nameless political experts are, quoted by Iranian media in propaganda.
Permanent US military bases are for the long-term security interests of Afghanistan. President Karzai should not make it a bargaining tool, rather urge MPs to unanimously support it.