International Policy Digest

U.S. Army
World News /26 Jan 2019

Why America Should Stay in Afghanistan

America’s longest yet forgotten war has come under the media’s scrutiny in recent weeks.

As President Trump intends to withdraw American troops from Afghanistan, political pundits, politicians, and military generals have pondered the ramifications of such action.

Many of them have analyzed the impact that withdrawal would have on regional players, international terrorist groups, and the Taliban. Such analyses are mainly along the lines of an imminent Taliban takeover, Washington giving up its leverage against the Taliban, and the revitalization of Afghanistan’s territory as a hotbed for international terrorist groups. Which are all true.

But not many have thought about this: U.S. withdrawal would trigger a gruesome civil war in Afghanistan.

The current proxy war in Afghanistan is deadly as is, fueled by regional players. The annual report by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), an NGO that analyzes political violence, concluded that in 2018 amongst all global conflicts, the war in Afghanistan was the most violent. Fatalities in Afghanistan were as many as in Yemen and Syria combined.

U.S. withdrawal would lead to an even more lethal conflict. That’s so because Washington is the only stabilizing influential actor in Afghanistan. Washington’s diplomatic and militaristic presence has tamed Afghanistan’s warlords. Consequently, an American withdrawal would give Afghan warlords the green light to tussle for absolute power. These warlords are the most volatile domestic actors. They are players in a zero-sum game, actively searching for opportunities to grab power.

In a nutshell: Washington’s presence is preventing an Afghan civil war that would be fueled by local warlords.

Without American troops, warlords would attempt to seize power and hold various parts of the country as hostage.

Even Afghanistan’s powerful warlord, Atta Mohammad Noor, often referred to as the ‘King of the North’ admitted this.

In a recent interview, Noor implied that without Washington’s presence he would capture the presidential palace in three days. There’s no doubt that he could do that but he wouldn’t be the only one. Dozens of other warlords would also attempt to grab the president palace, plunging the country into another vicious civil war.

In the last eighteen years, Afghanistan’s warlords have failed to provoke a civil war because the United States has firmly supported the Afghan government.

In fact, Washington has a track record of preventing civil war in Afghanistan. During times of crises, America has utilized its power to domesticate Afghan warlords.

In the early stages of the post-Taliban reign, Hamid Karzai led a fragile newly formed Afghan government following more than a decade of anarchy. As the Afghan government was weak, warlords weren’t shy to use violence as a means to attain their political objectives. During this critical juncture, Zalmay Khalilzad, America’s top diplomat and expert on Afghanistan in his capacity as Washington’s Ambassador to Kabul, tactically employed American soft and hard power to divert civil war by diffusing tension between warlords. He prevented warlords from mobilizing militias against opponents, attacking the Afghan National Army, and invading local provinces. Mr. Khalilzad recalled in his memoir, The Envoy: From Kabul to the White House, My Journey Through a Turbulent World, that Washington’s successful efforts “were ‘breaking the back of warlordism.’”

Further, in 2014, as a result of disputing electoral votes, Afghanistan was on the verge of a civil war. The election’s two largest rival parties were eager to take up arms. The prospect of a civil war was high as both parties perceived themselves as the winner. One team, led by the current chief executive, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah was ready to occupy more than half of the country and announce a parallel government. America’s former secretary of state, John Kerry diffused the crisis by utilizing American soft power to facilitate a power-sharing agreement between the rival groups.

Since 1979, every regime that survived in Kabul had the support of a foreign country. The current and subsequent regimes are no different. At a time when Afghanistan’s state institutions are feeble and marred with internal rivalry, Washington is the only guarantor for binding these institutions. For this reason, the presence of American troops is required to foster domestic stability and to signal to destabilizing actors Washington’s support to the Afghan government.

Despite the horrific consequences of withdrawal, some legislators support Trump’s instincts on Afghanistan. Of them is Senator Elizabeth Warren. In a recent statement, she asserted that “it’s right to get our troops out of Afghanistan…I think that everybody who keeps saying, ‘No, no, no, we can’t do that,’ in the defense establishment needs to explain what they think winning in those wars [looks] like and where the metrics are.”

Winning in Afghanistan has been the absence of warlord butchery, anarchy, and safe havens for international terrorist groups.

Like Senator Warren, many lawmakers who support Trump’s impulse often cite failures while conveniently overlooking these significant achievements.

Although Trump’s itch for withdrawal has brought relevancy to its forgotten war, ultimately, America’s longest war deserves the consideration of discerning policymakers.