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09 Sep 2009

Assessing an Afghanistan Withdrawal

Three soldiers standing against the light
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US Army soldiers in Afghanistan

Opponents of a US/NATO withdrawal fear the return of the Taliban to power and another 9/11, but what is more likely is regional security cooperation to address a common threat, Mark N Katz comments for ISN Security Watch.

By Mark N Katz for ISN

Public opinion in Europe, Canada and even America is increasingly turning against continuing the large US/NATO military presence in Afghanistan. Even some conservatives - such as Washington Post columnist George Will - are now calling for a withdrawal. Those who oppose withdrawal, however, claim that it would allow al-Qaida back into Afghanistan where it could launch more attacks like 9/11 against America and the West. The eight years that US/NATO forces have spent in Afghanistan, and all the sacrifices they have made, would have been for naught.

Those opposing a US/NATO withdrawal assume that this will lead to the Taliban returning to power in Afghanistan, the Taliban allowing al-Qaida renewed access to the country, and al-Qaida making use of Afghanistan to successfully attack the West again. All three of these assumptions, though, are questionable.

First, it is not clear that a US/NATO withdrawal would lead to the Taliban returning to power in much more of Afghanistan than they control now. While the Taliban have a base of support among the Pashtuns in the south, they appear to have no support among non-Pashtuns elsewhere.   Because of their experience under Taliban rule from 1996 through 2001, the non-Pashtuns have no illusions about what life will be like for them if the Taliban return to power. This could well motivate them to put aside differences among themselves (which helped the Taliban in 1996) and resist it - something with which the US and NATO could assist even after a complete or partial troop withdrawal.

Further, even if the Taliban were to return to power in Afghanistan, it is not clear that it would give al-Qaida carte blanche the way it did before 9/11. This after all is what led to the US/NATO intervention in Afghanistan just afterward. The Taliban may well prefer to severely circumscribe or even sacrifice al-Qaida in order to avoid the possibility of a second costly interruption to its hold on power.

Finally, al-Qaida and its affiliates already have access to Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province, Somalia, Yemen and other badlands. It is not clear how al-Qaida’s getting more access to Afghanistan than it now has would materially increase its already considerable ability to attack the West.

Far more than what it might add to al-Qaida’s capabilities, the most important geopolitical impact of a US/NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan would be the perception of a western (read: American) defeat. Yet even in the worst case - the Taliban return to power and once again allow carte blanche to al-Qaida - the most negative geopolitical effects are more likely to be felt not by the US and Europe (which al-Qaida can attack without a base in Afghanistan since it already has bases elsewhere), but the countries neighboring and near Afghanistan: the Central Asian republics, Russia, China, India - and perhaps even Pakistan and Iran.

The impact of a US/NATO withdrawal, then, could well be to make these neighboring and nearby governments feel more vulnerable, and thus more willing to increase or initiate cooperation with the US and NATO to contain al-Qaida and the Taliban within Afghanistan. 

This is not to say that the US and NATO will be better off after a complete withdrawal from Afghanistan or a partial one from the south. Withdrawal will surely have some negative consequences. But not withdrawing will also have negative consequences if the US/NATO intervention becomes even less popular in Afghanistan and the West than it is now. 

Even if a withdrawal from Afghanistan results in the worst case scenario its opponents predict, this is highly likely to be mitigated by non-Pashtuns inside Afghanistan or the governments of neighboring and nearby countries acquiring the incentive to increase (or in some cases, initiate) security cooperation with the US and NATO against the common threat. Just as maintaining or increasing US/NATO military involvement in Afghanistan will not necessarily lead to victory, withdrawal will not necessarily lead to defeat there.


Mark N Katz is a professor of government and politics at George Mason University.

The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author only, not the International Relations and Security Network (ISN).

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