It is no longer a question of whether the United States will leave Afghanistan; it is a question of under what conditions.
Will it be a repeat of the chaotic withdrawal from Vietnam in 1975 and America’s subsequent timidity in the pursuit of our national interests? Or will it be simply a segue to a more successful regional foreign policy?
Now that U.S. policymakers are slowly coming to the realization that there will be no military victory in Afghanistan, it is critical to understand why we were defeated because it provides a foundation to formulate a more effective strategy.
Not to put too fine a point on it, we were fighting the wrong type of war.
In the face of clearly contradictory facts, the Pentagon insisted on pursuing counterinsurgency operations confined geographically to Afghanistan while the generals in Islamabad were using the Taliban to conduct a proxy war, launching attacks against American, NATO and Afghan forces from safe havens in Pakistan.
The Pakistanis have openly stated that they took billions of U.S. dollars while plotting to defeat the United States.
Case in point — In 2015, Lieutenant General Hamid Gul, the former head of Pakistan’s intelligence service, the ISI, a committed Islamist and known as the “godfather of the Taliban,” said the following in an Urdu language television interview:
One day, history will say that the ISI drove the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan with the help of USA and another sentence will be recorded that says the ISI drove the USA out of Afghanistan with the help of the USA.
The Pakistani audience roared with laughter and applauded in approval. And why wouldn’t they? America was monumentally stupid.
It borders on tactical insanity to conduct a war when the enemy controls, simultaneously, as Pakistan has, the operational tempo and the supply of your troops. Pakistan could always do just enough to prevent us from winning and protect the Taliban from losing by providing sanctuary.
The United States should have known that — even before we put boots on the ground. Pakistan is an ally of China, has never shared U.S. objectives in Afghanistan and began obstructing those objectives within days of 9/11.
In strategic reality, it is not the Taliban nor Pakistan with which we should be concerned. And the problem does not reside solely in Afghanistan.
The threat is from China in the form of the Chinese-Pakistani alliance. China’s aim is to dominate South Asia, first economically based on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and then militarily using its alliance with Pakistan to establish military bases in Balochistan, Pakistan’s southwestern province.
Those bases would provide a critical link between China’s military facilities in the South China Sea and its naval base in Djibouti at the entrance of the Red Sea and the Suez Canal.
Chinese naval and air bases on the Balochistan coast would control the vital sea lanes of the Arabian Sea and northern Indian Ocean and threaten another strategic chokepoint, the Strait of Hormuz. A successful implementation of the Chinese-Pakistani plan would mean the isolation of India, which is not at all advantageous to the international order.
Key to that plan is the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan and the removal of American influence from South Asia.
Countering those ambitions does not require direct confrontation with China. Instead, it involves applying pressure to Pakistan’s major pain points, a crumbling economy and ethnic separatism.
An obvious economic target is CPEC, the flagship of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which runs through Balochistan, the location of CPEC’s major port, Gwadar, thus making Balochistan a strategic center of gravity.
Balochistan, traditionally secular and tolerant, has also been the home of a festering ethnic insurgency since the partition of India in 1947, when the region was forcibly incorporated into Pakistan. Despite its mineral wealth, the Baloch have been intentionally kept underdeveloped by the Pakistan government.
This underdevelopment has been a cause for sporadic uprisings, along with oppression and alleged extrajudicial killings by the Pakistani military. Similar resentment exists within two of Pakistan’s other major ethnic groups: the Pashtuns and Sindhis.
By exploiting those two Pakistani pain points, the United States could maintain regional influence, thwart China’s march to the sea, create options for Afghanistan, affect the stability of the Iranian regime and, potentially, drive a stake into the heart of radical Islam.
The expenditure of blood and treasure in Afghanistan will only be in vain if we fail to improvise, adapt and overcome.
Lawrence Sellin, Ph.D. is a retired U.S. Army Reserve colonel, an IT command and control subject matter expert, trained in Arabic and Kurdish, and a veteran of Afghanistan, northern Iraq and a humanitarian mission to West Africa.