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Foreign Policy

A Decision yet to Be Made

May 31 , 2012
  • Zhao Gancheng

    Senior Fellow, Shanghai Institutes for Int'l Studies

The NATO Summit in Chicago was held between May 20-21 with the background of noisy demonstrations to protest against the Afghan war that has lasted for more than 10 years.  Actually, how to deal with the issue was on the top agenda at the Summit for both President Obama and other NATO leaders. There are plenty of reasons that the U.S. wants to discuss the Afghan issue with the members of NATO and other partners in the first place.  Led by the U.S. , the NATO have played a significant role in the Afghan war.  Over the decade, NATO members have contributed to the Afghan course by deploying military troops in the tiny Islamic nation, and some of them station their troops there to a relatively large scale for such a long time that enormous suspicions have arisen in their own countries among public opinions for casualties and large military expenditure in Afghanistan when the European debt crises have been developing. 

For the Obama administration, the Afghan issue is difficult to deal with properly.  Domestically, when the presidential campaign is approaching closer, constituents are likely to recall the president's commitment in previous campaign that he, if elected, would end the Afghan war in a decent manner during his term.  Now that there are about half a year left in his term, making the commitment not become empty words may be more important than before if the president wants to win the second term.  Furthermore, in international arena, the U.S. has been conducting what is known as ' rebalancing strategy ' that supposedly focuses more on the Asia-Pacific.  Criticism on US Afghan policy underscores the readjustment, arguing that the U.S. allocated too much resources to those areas like Afghanistan and Iraq, and neglected more vital interests in other areas.  However, the criticism like this ignores an important fact that proper solution to the Afghan issue is part of vital interests of the United States.  The problem is how to get a proper solution.  This is a fierce challenge to the president.  For that purpose, the president paid a sudden visit to Afghanistan in early May, and invited President Karzai to Chicago next.  The two presidents reiterated US-Afghan strategic partnership. 

Analysts tend to believe that the president has to make decision sooner than later, because the U.S. needs to build up strategic vision, and the U.S. cannot be confined to one single issue.  That is true.  The NATO Chicago Summit has thus determined to withdraw troops as scheduled and transfer the job of security maintenance to the Karzai regime by the end of 2014.  The NATO must become ' the hub of global security ' as declared by the president himself. However, the decision has been overshadowed by an unsettled issue between the United States and Pakistan.  Since last November when the American airstrike killed 24 Pakistani solders, the Pakistani government suspended the supply routes to Afghanistan through Pakistan. These supply lines now look increasingly important not only for logistic supply to the troops in Afghanistan but also for NATO's withdrawal because the routes are mostly effective as far as withdrawal of huge troops and equipments from Afghanistan is concerned.  Now the Pakistani government agreed to reopen the routes but asked for much higher charges, reportedly from USD 250 per heavy truck through Pakistan in the past to USD 5,000 per truck in the future.  The cost, if paid as demanded by Pakistan, would be unacceptable to Washington. Senior American officials believe that Pakistan unexpectedly raises the cost because they failed to get an official apology from Washington for the killing of soldiers and they want to use the route issue to comfort domestic opinions on Pakistani cooperation with the U.S..  Despite the fruitless negotiation over the issue, President Obama yet decided to invite Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari to the Chicago Summit, a clear indication that a vital decision on the Afghan issue would not work without collaboration from Pakistan.

Afghanistan is a tough issue ahead of the administration even though the withdrawal decision has been made.  For ten years, the war in Afghanistan cost several thousand American casualties and trillion dollar spending, yet the security situation remains as serious problem, despite successful strike on Al Qaeda and elimination of Osama bin Laden.  It is not very clear now where the U.S. wants to go.  Completely eliminating Taliban might be an ideal goal, but that mission is too hard to accomplish, judging from past experience.  The State Department reportedly try to negotiate with what is known as moderate Taliban, but nobody knows where the bottom line of US goal lies in.  As President Karzai said at his meeting with President Obama in Chicago, ' Afghanistan does not want to become a burden on the shoulders of our friends .'  That is fine, but he may not have to apologize even if Afghanistan has been a burden, because Afghanistan did not have an option in the past, and what it can do in the future is still unlikely to be determined by the Afghans. The seriousness of this issue lies in the answer to the question whether Asians can handle Asian affairs, and that is a decision yet to be made by a number of players, and the United States in particular.

The complexity of the Afghan issue reflects a significant geopolitical reality. Afghanistan sits in the center of Eurasia connecting all the major parts of Asia. From the British to Russian and now American, great powers wish to control it for different purposes, but would face similar resistance from within the country, and perhaps more importantly, most Asian countries do not want to see Afghanistan to be controlled by any outside powers.  That might be the explanation why both the British and Russian failed.  As the Chinese proverb goes, history is a mirror to tell the cause of rise and fall of dynasties. The United States is the solo superpower in the international system, but that does not necessarily change the fundamental rules of history. From historic perspectives, leaving small states alone is a wise option for great powers, and trying to control them, though full of temptations, would lead to more mistakes by great powers.  In most of the first decade of 21st century, the U.S. worked out a variety of plans labeled as either great Middle-East plan or great Central Asia plan, the basic goal and approach looks similar, that is, the U.S. wants to change small states according to American ideas so that they would go as Americans wish to see. Fundamentally speaking, it is sort of attempt to control.  In this regard, one could argue that, even if President Obama has decided to withdraw from Afghanistan, there will be a decision yet to be made in American global strategy.

For the NATO, the largest military alliance in today's world, the Chicago Summit presents a brilliant example to showcase the unity of not only the members of the organization, but also many other partners beyond the two sides of Atlantic, but for what purpose?  The NATO was the product of the cold war, but it was not gone with the latter.  Led by the United States, the NATO have renewed its commitments, and have taken new missions as well.  Afghanistan has been one of them. For ten years, the NATO have mobilized all kinds of means to pursue its goals in the nation.  How to evaluate NATO's achievements in Afghanistan depends on many factors, but the truth is that, the military alliance is so powerful that they could destroy a small state like Afghanistan over night but may not be able to build it up according to its goals even for ten years.  The truth is indeed that, the members of the alliance now want to leave the nation perhaps not because the mission is completed but because the mission is not going to be accomplished in the future.  There must have been something wrong in it. That is not to say the mission is wrong, but the Afghan issue by its nature is not a military one, and the fact that a military alliance pursues a non-military mission in a remote Islamic state contains some inherent contradictions. 

As the US strategic rebalancing has been well under way, there are debates on whether the NATO should take a more extensively global role to cover all the regions in the world. The United States will continue to lead the NATO to a new direction, but where the destination should be needs to be taken seriously. As a military alliance, the NATO should take good care of security issues for its members, but if it goes too far engaging itself too much out of its own bounds, that would only lead to more uncertainties.  This is indeed a lesson from Afghanistan, and a decision yet to be made mainly by the United States.

Zhao Gancheng is senior fellow and director of South Asia Studies, Shanghai Institutes for International Studies.


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