Ambiguity as strategy
Writing on the subject of «foreign troops» a few months ago, the well known Guardian columnist and editor Seumas Milne observed, «It’s almost never discussed in the political mainstream. But thousands of foreign troops have now been stationed in Britain for more than 70 years. There’s been nothing like it since the Norman invasion. With the 15-month Dutch occupation of London in 1688-89 a distant competitor, there has been no precedent since 1066 for the presence of American forces in a string of military bases for the better part of a century».
The case of Germany where American bases were established following World War II is even more curious. Forty-two US military installations still exist in Germany 70 years after the war ended and even after the «enemy» vanished – Soviet Union.
This is also the most intriguing question that no one is prepared to answer regarding the US-Afghan pact, known popularly as the Bilateral Security Agreement or the BSA, which was signed in Kabul on September 30. What explains the long-term military presence of a superpower on foreign soil?
The pact itself – titled «Security and Defense Cooperation Agreement between the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the United States of America» – says it is valid «until the end of 2024 and beyond». It remains in vogue ad infinitum unless either side calls for its abrogation with a two-year advance notice.
The pact is quintessentially a garrisoning deal and it suggests that the Afghan war will last at least another decade. The explicit purpose of the BSA is to permit the US to continue training Afghanistan’s nearly 350,000 security forces (which would probably be slashed by a third to about 228,000.) But, obviously, the pact is also implicitly a hedge against an outright Taliban takeover militarily in Afghanistan. On the outer side, it meshes with the US’ war on terrorism and it additionally says, the mission of the US forces will be to «enhance the ability of Afghanistan to deter internal and external threats against its sovereignty».
An annexure to the pact lists nine major land and air bases where the US forces will have exclusive access – Bagram, Kabul, Mazar-i-Sharif, Gardez, Jalalabad, Kandahar, Helmand, Shindand and Herat. The location of the bases suggests that the US forces will have reach all over Afghanistan’s territory.
The US-Afghan pact does not specify a ceiling on the American troop strength remaining in Afghanistan, while the NATO-Afghan pact specifically allows for 4000 to 5000 troops remaining in the country after 2014. The US President Barack Obama has unilaterally decided that 9800 American troops will be stationed through 2015. That is to say, the total number of foreign troops immediately remaining in the country could be notionally up to 14800. But then, there are some ambiguities here.
Three interesting points are to be noted here. First, the US-Afghan pact does not prevent the augmentation of the American force strength and it is the prerogative of the incumbent American president or his successor(s) to ramp troop levels back up if they decide such a move is warranted in the US interests.
Second, according to estimations by senior Pakistani experts credited with links to the establishment, there is also going to be a big contingent of some 30000 military contractors who would remain stationed and that at least half of them would comprise American troops. Indeed, the pact specifically provides for the facilities and privileges for these contractors, which are to be almost on par with the regular troops except for their culpability in committing any crimes under Afghan laws.
Now, it is a well-documented fact that the Pentagon had in the past few years begun a practice of sub-contracting a variety of operations on the Afghan war theatre, including combat missions, to contractors, many of whom are retired military or intelligence personnel of the highest caliber such as having served in the Special Forces. There has been a protracted war of words between the Americans and Kabul that these so-called military contractors had acted outside the pale of legitimacy even by the standards of a brutal war such as the war against the Taliban.
The Pakistani sources have also revealed that the US has been in touch with Pakistan «over its plans to maintain its military presence in Afghanistan for the long term». Indeed, the terms of the pact regarding the privileges accorded to the US troops immunities from Afghan laws, etc. which have been fleshed out at great length, are on par with Pentagon’s standard agreements for establishing military bases in foreign countries such as Japan or South Korea.
The US keeps maintaining it does not intend to establish military bases in Afghanistan. But much sophistry goes into such pledges and affirmations. For instance, the US troops are based in military bases in Britain that are misleadingly named «RAF this or that, but effectively under full American control: Lakenheath, Croughton, Mildenhall and Molesworth among others along with the National Security Agency and missile defence bases such as Menwith Hill in Yorkshire». This is according to Spencer Ackerman, national security editor of Guardian US.
Finally, although the US mission is ostensibly to train the Afghan forces, the security pact also says that the American troops could be involved in counterterrorism operations «to complement and support» those of the Afghan government forces. Again, while the pact is not a classic defense pact explicitly committing the US to defend Afghanistan in the event of an external aggression, it goes to considerable length in Article 6 of the BSA to spell out the response to an external aggression.
Article 6 says, inter alia, that the US and Afghanistan shall enter into consultations «to develop a list of political, diplomatic, military and economic measures» that could form an appropriate response in the event of an aggression and that such consultations will be on a «regular basis».
All in all, the pact de facto legitimizes the establishment of American military bases in Afghanistan – nine in number to begin with, but with provision for additional bases if need be – spread throughout the country where an unspecified number of US troops will be stationed – to begin with, close to some 40000 personnel (including «contractors» engaged by the Pentagon) – on an open-ended basis.
Quite obviously, it may seem that despite the window dressing that it’s the «end of the combat mission» for the US forces in Afghanistan, that may not be the case in reality. In fact, a Deutsche Welle commentary assessed, «Combat troops are to remain in the country, too – officially as protection for the trainers and logistics experts. The Taliban have already announced they will continue their fight until the last western soldier has left the country. So inevitably, the military will be involved in the anti-terror fight. The military presence and its cooperation with Afghan troops – hopefully loyal to the government – may calm some areas medium term. But true peace for Afghanistan is in the distant future, a forward-looking strategy nowhere in sight».
Prima facie, this German assessment implies that the Americans are on the one hand duping themselves and their European allies into believing that the Afghan war is over and done with, while on the other hand conveying a false impression to the region that the US military presence in Afghanistan is ending, finally and conclusively.
Yet, this would appear to be a flawed German assessment insofar as Washington faces genuine difficulties, due to a variety of factors, to continue with a virtually open-ended combat mission in Afghanistan. The US public opinion militates against the continuance of the Afghan war; the US’ major allies in Europe are genuinely averse to continuing with the war; and, above all, the cost of the war has become unaffordable over a long term.
However, on the other hand, the incontrovertible reality is that there is indeed a long-term American military presence shaping up in Afghanistan, and, the establishment of military bases (including such massive ones as Bagram, Shindand or Kandahar) is way past the needs of some 1500 American trainers and the auxiliary forces supporting them and/or providing them with logistics.
To be sure, a yawning gap has appeared in the credibility of the US’ stated positions. Coupled with the extraordinary privileges extracted from Kabul under the pact for the upkeep of the American trainers and the auxiliary forces, a widespread opinion among the Afghan people is available today that Washington’s objectives go far beyond the territory of their country or its security and may even be primarily aiming to serve the US’ regional policies and its strategic interests.
Of course, this inchoate fear – shared to some extent by the region as well – was precisely what the outgoing president Hamid Karzai articulated when he openly rendered advised his parting advice to the successor regime to beware of the American intentions.
(To be continued)