After the fight: Afghanistan as a strategic opportunity

After the fight: Afghanistan as a strategic opportunity
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For the first time in nearly 20 years, there is a serious interest in peace in Afghanistan. President Ghani and the Taliban leadership have published invitations, and there have been feelers from many Taliban leaders in the field to provincial authorities. Afghan religious leaders — the Ulema Council — have called on the Kabul government and the Taliban to stop fighting and begin negotiations. While the Ulema Council was recently attacked for its efforts by an ISIS bomber, a few hundred peace marchers from Helmand have trekked 400 kilometers to Kabul. President Ghani called for a week-long ceasefire for the end of Ramadan, which NATO air and ground forces will honor.

While peace is not around the corner, it is time for Washington to begin to think about what comes after peace arrives in Afghanistan. Many Americans, in and out of the government, would be eager to be done with Afghanistan and leave it to the locals, as we did in the early 1990s.  However, our near-abandonment of Afghanistan then had ill effects on peace and security in the region. We saw Afghanistan only as a burdensome problem, a drain on the Treasury. Today, an Afghanistan at peace can be a strategic opportunity for the United States. Our continuing presence there can further our interests and those of the government and people of Afghanistan.

Afghanistan sits between one nuclear power, Pakistan, and another potential nuclear power, Iran, an anti-American state with hegemonic ambitions. Afghanistan borders all of Central Asia and is a logical hub for Silk Road trade and other commercial activities. Russia and China have important interests in Afghanistan and, by design or inertia, could come to dominate postwar Afghanistan — which would be unfortunate for U.S. interests, to say the least. To a lesser degree, India could, in time, emerge as a dominant power within Afghanistan, ensuring instability exported from Pakistan. A robust American presence could help Afghanistan get on its feet and balance the other great powers.  


From us, Afghanistan could expect aid and security assistance. Our presence would provide stability and establish the United States as a buffer to great power rivalry. Rather than it becoming an economic ward of the U.S. government, we could encourage private-sector firms to invest in Afghanistan to develop its considerable agricultural, industrial and mining assets. The United States could push the United Nations and World Bank to make major reconstruction efforts in peacetime Afghanistan. If the United States plays its cards right, its NATO allies will continue their efforts to help Afghanistan.

For our cooperation, Afghanistan would provide access to base areas in the west around Shindand, in the south at Kandahar, in the capital region at Bagram, and in the north at Mazar e Sharif. Our small ground-air advisory force would be augmented with other U.S. and NATO troops for yearly regional exercises. As the economy grows and security spreads, international counternarcotics efforts could end that blight on Afghanistan’s development.

All of this is music to many ears, but the Taliban, Pakistan and Iran will not look upon it kindly.  The Taliban has made the withdrawal of all foreign troops the centerpiece of its program. Pakistan would worry about India continuing to spread its commercial and political influence in Afghanistan. Iran today is virtually at war with the United States over other, more pressing issues. It hated the Taliban, but helps it today because the Taliban fights the Great Satan.

The Taliban, Pakistan and Iran will have to undergo a learning experience. The Taliban would have to learn the benefits of U.S. assistance. For example, we could make sure that, after appropriate training, Kabul would integrate young Taliban fighters into the national army and police forces. The United States could create tremendous incentives for cooperation around the disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration process.

Pakistan would have to stop aiding the Taliban. In return, it could receive more security and economic assistance. It would get our pledge that we would work to ensure that the Afghan government not cast its lot with India, and that India would not get into the business of “adopting” Afghan national security forces. Pakistan has few friends in Kabul. We could help them with their “image” problem, which has been one of their own creation.

Iran would be the toughest nut to crack. In the long run, they may grudgingly accept the benefits a continuing U.S. presence in an Afghanistan that can bring stability to eastern Iran. Over time, improving relations will bring other possibilities, but for now, hostility over the U.S. rejection of the Iran nuclear accord and Iranian behavior in Yemen and Syria has severely limited positive possibilities.

In the end, this scheme may be the first draft of future history, or it may be the mad vision of an ivory tower strategist. But even if this vision proves infeasible, the basic point remains: the United States needs to have a plan for postwar Afghanistan, a country that can evolve from a burdensome problem to a fruitful strategic opportunity. Let a thousand flowers bloom.

Joseph Collins, a retired U.S. Army colonel, is University Professor and the former director of the Center for Complex Operations at National Defense University. In his last policy assignment, he was deputy assistant secretary of defense for stability operations (2001-2004), where his team worked mainly on Afghanistan issues. His nearly 28 years of military service include infantry and armor assignments in the United States, South Korea, and Germany; teaching at West Point in the Department of Social Sciences; and a decade of policy assignments in the Pentagon.