Even through the US/NATO forces have largely withdrawn from Afghanistan, and the Taliban (banned in Russia) are increasingly advancing towards the northern provinces to expand and consolidate their rule, war in Afghanistan in highly unlikely to end in the coming weeks and months. Whereas a number of Afghan militias have vowed to ally with Kabul to resist the Taliban, and Ashraf Ghani has also threatened to launch a counter-offensive against the Taliban, civil war in Afghanistan will only be one dimension of the crisis looming large over a country that has been experiencing non-stop bloodshed since the 1980s. The war, even after withdrawal, is going to retain its international character. As it stands, the US, even after a formal withdrawal from Afghanistan, is taking concrete steps to ramp up its war post-withdrawal. It has been over a month since the US first announced its intentions to establish military bases around Afghanistan (Central and South Asia) to support Afghan security forces in their war with the Taliban. In this behalf, Washington recently announced that Qatar will host a US base dedicated to the latter’s Afghanistan operations. Pakistan, while it has refused to provide any military bases to the US, has confirmed that agreements signed with the US in 2001 for ground and air access for the US military remain valid and operational.
Washington recently announced that the commanding US general, Austin Miller, will stay in Afghanistan for “at least a couple of weeks” to help transition the American mission from active combat to “new objectives.” A pertinent question, in this behalf, is: what are the new objectives? A recent glimpse of these “new objectives” came when the US invited foreign ministers of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan to Washington to discuss with them prospects for US military presence inside their countries. In his meeting with his Uzbek counterpart, Antony Blinken noted “the United States’ desire to deepen its strategic partnership with Uzbekistan”, adding that “Uzbekistan’s continued support for a just and durable peace settlement in Afghanistan” remains crucial. The purpose of these new and multiple military bases will be to, as the Pentagon confirmed, allow the US to carry out air-strikes as and when needed.
Accordingly, General McKenzie, Miller’s successor, will assume at least through August the same authorities General Miller currently has to carry out airstrikes against Al Qaeda, ISIS (terrorist ogranizations, both banned in Russia) and Taliban fighters. As McKenzie confirmed, the US will carry out air strikes whenever any attack plans are discovered to strike a) the US homeland, b) US allies (NATO), and c) US partners (Kabul and Pentagon contractors).
A New York Times report recently said that the US is considering extending the current contract for about 18,000 Pentagon contractors to continue to provide support and services to the Afghan security forces, including the air force.
As such, there is no appetite in the US to just end the so-called forever war in Afghanistan. On the contrary, with a large number of warlords and private militias now emerging on the horizon to resist an outright Taliban victory, it is quite possible for the US to extend its support to these groups along side Afghan security forces to fight a hybrid war in Afghanistan post-formal-withdrawal. The US, in other words, is tacitly moving towards a mode of warfare it has been following in Syria for quite some time, where it deliberately supported, and continues to support, militias (Kurds) against Damascus to prevent the latter from establishing its full control in Syria. In Afghanistan, Washington will be pursuing a similar objective i.e., preventing the Taliban from regaining complete control of Afghanistan.
Unlike Syria, however, the US will have a ‘legitimate’ presence in Afghanistan, as Kabul will be happy to ‘invite’ the US to play a supportive role vis-à-vis the Taliban. The situation clearly indicates that the US, as also NATO, are looking to remain as the leading players on the Afghan chessboard, not willing to leave the space open for the Russians and the Chinese to claim.
But can the pull this off? A more pertinent question is: can the US defeat the Taliban through a presence outside of Afghanistan and achieve a goal it was unable to achieve through twenty years of direct war?
While the US itself may not be looking to hand the Taliban an outright defeat (which is anyway not possible now), it remains that the US options to continue its war in Afghanistan and maintain a strong military presence in Central Asia will be resisted and detested by the Russians and the Chinese alike. It is common knowledge that Russia will be using its influence in Central Asia to prevent the US from establishing an open-ended large military presence.
The US, however, is not unaware of this possibility. As Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said, even without a presence in Central Asia, the US has an over-the-horizon capability to assist the Afghan military, referring to the bases and US Navy ships in the Gulf. “There’s not a scrap of earth we can’t hit”, Kirby said.
As such, while Russia and China have their reasons to be concerned about the situation developing Afghanistan due to an irresponsible US withdrawal, and how the conflict could spill over in the Central Asian States (given the Taliban have already reached Tajik border forcing over a thousand Afghan troops to flee to Tajikistan), there is equally no desire to have a US military presence in the region. On the contrary, Russia and China will be more comfortable presenting themselves as better alternatives to the US military presence in the region. Already, the Russians have started beefing up their military hardware in what is called Russia’s Southern Military District. The air defence capabilities of the Russian base in Tajikistan are being strengthened, including with deployment of the newest Verba portable anti-aircraft missile systems (MANPADS). President Vladimir Putin had a call with Tajikistan President Emomali Rahmanov last week where he pledged all Russian support to strengthen Tajik defence capabilities, especially in the wake of the brewing trouble in Afghanistan.
However, even though the US may have limited options at this stage to transform its direct war into a long-term or a permanent hybrid war, there is no denying that Washington is searching for ways to achieve the said objectives. Its new base in Qatar has already set the stage for the war to come.
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.