Q&A: The reasons behind America’s war in Afghanistan


The Afghan war has lasted nearly ten years, yet America remains sunk in a quagmire. Obama promised to make the Afghan war a priority and accused the Bush administration of neglecting the real war. Since Obama came to power and the development of his strategy against terrorism in Afghanistan, America seems to contradict herself in this strategy.

On the one hand America increases the troops there, but then says that this increase will be withdrawn in the summer of 2011, which is to the detriment of that strategy. Many officials including, General Petraeus, claim that the strategy is not effective. Moreover, there are news reports stating there is a conflict between the State Department and the military.

1. What is the interest of America in Afghanistan despite falling into this quagmire?

2. Is there any real difference between the view of the previous Republican administration and the current Democratic administration?

3. Is Obama serious in his plan to withdraw from Afghanistan despite the disagreement between him and the commanders?

4. Is there a role for the neighbouring countries, especially in the light of Europe’s “boredom” with this war and her plans for withdrawal? What is expected in this regard?


1 – Let’s start with some views of this region by American political analysts. This region is part of the historical region of Eurasia, extending from East Asia through Central Asia and its surrounding regions and embracing Europe itself.

In the words of Zbigniew Brzezinski: “Eurasia is home to most of the world’s politically assertive and dynamic states. All the historical pretenders to global power originated in Eurasia. The world’s most populous aspirants to regional hegemony, China and India, are in Eurasia, as are all the potential political or economic challengers to American primacy. After the United States, the next six largest economies and military spenders are there, as are all but one of the world’s overt nuclear powers, and all but one of the covert ones. Eurasia accounts for 75 percent of the world’s population, 60 percent of its GNP, and 75 percent of its energy resources. Collectively, Eurasia’s potential power overshadows even America’s. A power that dominated Eurasia would exercise decisive influence over two of the world’s three most economically productive regions, Western Europe and East Asia…almost automatically control the Middle East and Africa. What happens with the distribution of power on the Eurasian landmass will be of decisive importance to America’s global primacy and historical legacy.” [A Geostrategy for Eurasia , Foreign Affairs, September/October 1997]

George Friedman said in his book, “The US has had the ultimate aim of preventing the emergence of any major power in Eurasia. The paradox however is as follows – the goals of these interventions was never to achieve something – whatever the political rhetoric might have said – but to prevent something. The United States wanted to prevent stability in areas where another power might emerge. Its goal was not to stabilize but to destabilize, and this explains how the United States responded to the Islamic earthquake. It wanted to prevent a large, powerful Islamic state from emerging. Rhetoric aside the United States has no overriding interest in peace in Eurasia. The United States also has no interest in winning the war outright..the purpose of these conflicts is simply to block a power or destabilize the region, not to impose order.” [The next 100 years, a forecast for the 21st Century, 2009]

2- The region that forms the pivotal part of Eurasia is Central Asia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Western Iran. Hence, it is no surprise to discover successive US governments irrespective of their ideological inclinations (Neo-conservatism or Realism) focused on using Afghanistan and Pakistan to project US power and anchor American hegemony in the region. Indeed, the memory of using Afghanistan and Pakistan to defeat the Soviet Union is fresh in the minds of US politicians. In a recent interview Brzezinski admitted that Afghanistan in the ‘80s was the superpowers’ battle over Eurasia [Russia Today, September 26 2010]. So by invading Afghanistan after the dubious events of September 11 2001, America is endeavoured to secure its strategic goals, which are:

1. Prevent Russian and Chinese domination of Eurasia

2. Prevent the emergence of the Khilafah State

3. Control the hydrocarbon resources of the Caspian Sea and the Middle East

4. Control the security and the transit of hydrocarbons from the Caspian Sea and the Middle East

There is no dispute between Republicans and Democrats or between Neo-conservatives and Realists about the following goals: the invasion of Afghanistan, America’s long-lasting military presence in the country or America’s exploitation of Afghanistan to destabilize neighbouring countries – particularly the former Soviet Union states.

The dispute, however, is concentrated on operational goals i.e. America’s ability to achieve these strategic goals in the near term. Central to this is the size of America’s military footprint and the nature of the occupation. During Bush’s reign, his administration was completely preoccupied by the events in Iraq, and this allowed the Taliban to regroup and resurge. It was not until Obama’s ascendency to Presidency that Obama began to review the operational strategy in Afghanistan and explore mechanisms to subdue the Pushtun resistance. After successive reviews, Obama settled on the following operational goals:

a. Increase the capacity of the Afghan government to establish its writ over the country. This means building the Afghan security forces, police and army, appointing competent and loyal governors and minimizing corruption in the Afghan government.

b. Destroy al-Qaida and those elements amongst the Pushtun opposed to US occupation.

c. Encourage moderate Taliban fighters to defect and join the central government.

d. Enlist the help of Iran, India, Russia , China and other states to participate with the US in solving Afghanistan ‘s problem in a regional context.

3- Again these operational goals, when compared to what the Bush administration had articulated, only differ in the minutest of details. Nonetheless, the greatest variations between Obama and Bush occurred over the methods of delivering these operational goals i.e. what should be the size of America’s military footprint in Afghanistan and how deep should Pakistan’s involvement be in the war. The Bush administration was of the opinion that the operational goals could be achieved by restricting the size of America’s military footprint and gradually nudging Pakistan to get deeply involved in the tribal areas. Obama on the other hand, espoused a greater military footprint i.e. more US soldiers on the ground in Afghanistan and coercing Pakistan to play an active role in pursuing the war in the tribal areas. Additionally, Obama made a pledge to the American electorate to reduce the size of US forces in Afghanistan by 2012.

So on 1st December 2009, Obama announced, “The 30,000 additional troops that I am announcing tonight will deploy in the first part of 2010 – the fastest pace possible – so that they can target the insurgency and secure key population centers…Taken together, these additional American and international troops will allow us to accelerate handing over responsibility to Afghan forces, and allow us to begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July of 2011.” [Voice of America News Online]

The 30,000 extra US troops to arrive in the summer 2010 would take the total to 100,000 US servicemen. The total number of foreign forces in Afghanistan at present is 150,000. This figure includes the 100,000 American soldiers. As of September 2009, contractors providing security, transportation, and logistical services numbered 104,100 in Afghanistan according to the military. [DOD: Obama’s Afghan Surge Will Rely Heavily On Private Contractors, Justin Elliott December 15, 2009] Therefore, the total number of forces under the command of the US is about 250,000 personnel. On the Pakistani side of the Afghan border in the tribal areas, the number of Pakistan troops number 140,000 [Kayani spells out terms for regional stability, Dawn Online, February 02, 2010] This means that the total number of troops fighting the Taliban is around 390,000.

4- The withdrawal date has dogged relations within Obama’s administration, as well as between Obama and his military. Simply put the military establishment along with several senior politicians hold the view that the operational goals set out by Obama cannot be achieved with 250,000 soldiers and aggressive timelines. The most high profile victim of tensions between Obama and the military was General McChrystal who was relieved by Obama of his command. When relieving him Obama said that Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s scornful remarks about administration officials represent conduct that “undermines the civilian control of the military that is at the core of our democratic system.” [Obama relieves McChrystal of command, Jun 23 2010]

Even after the McCrystal’s dismissal the Pentagon continues to doubt Obama’s Afghan withdrawal date. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, gave reassurances to Gen Petraeus, McChrystal’s replacement. Gates emphasized that the drawdown plan was “conditions-based,” and said that whilst General David Petraeus agrees with the president’s overall strategy, “when he gets on the ground, he will assess the situation for himself. And at some point, he will make recommendations to the president. And that’s what any military commander should do. And the president will welcome those recommendations. But at the end of the day, the president will decide whether changes are to be made in the strategy.” [CBS News online June 24 2010]

In August another US General James Conway, head of the US Marine Corps questioned the withdrawal date. He said, “In some ways we think right now it’s probably giving our enemy sustenance. We think that he may be saying to himself, in fact we’ve intercepted communications that say, ‘Hey, we only have to hold out for so long,'” … “I honestly think it will be a few years before conditions on the ground are such that turnover will be possible for us.” [US general: Afghan deadline ‘giving enemy sustenance’, BBC News Online, August 24 2010]

5- But the most revealing exposition of schisms between Obama and the military surfaced in Bob Woodward’s book “Obama’s Wars.” According to Woodward’s meeting-by-meeting, memo-by-memo account of the 2009 Afghan strategy review, the president avoided talk of victory as he described his objectives.

“This needs to be a plan about how we’re going to hand it off and get out of Afghanistan,” Obama is quoted as telling White House aides as he laid out his reasons for adding 30,000 troops in a short-term escalation. “Everything we’re doing has to be focused on how we’re going to get to the point where we can reduce our footprint. It’s in our national security interest. There cannot be any wiggle room.” The president concluded from the start that, “I have two years with the public on this” and pressed advisers for ways to avoid a big escalation, the book says. “I want an exit strategy,” he implored at one meeting. Privately, he told Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. to push his alternative strategy opposing a big troop buildup in meetings, and while Mr. Obama ultimately rejected it, he set a withdrawal timetable because, “I can’t lose the whole Democratic Party.” [Obama Wars, Bob Woodward]

6- So it is obvious from these quotes that Obama’s primary concern is to bring some of the US servicemen home in time for the US General elections in 2012. Meanwhile the US army is adamant that the deadline be extended and is deeply opposed to Obama’s withdrawal plan. The Pentagon views it as extremely dangerous to the accomplishment of its operational goals.

It must also be underscored that Obama does not intend to withdraw all of the US troops i.e. 100,000 soldiers. According to the Afghanistan study group, which recently produced a paper entitled ‘A NEW WAY FORWARD: A FIVE-POINT APPROACH’. In this paper the authors recommend ‘a decrease to 68,000 troops by October 2011, and 30,000 by July 2012. This step would save the U.S. at least $60 billion to $80 billion per year and reduce local resentment at our large and intrusive military presence.’ Other studies advocate a troop reduction of 50,000. For instance in the essay, “How the Afghan War Can Still Be Won,” O’Hanlon, the author believes that Obama will “run for re-election with more than 50,000 US troops still in Afghanistan.[Foreign Affairs 2010]. This means that America will still maintain a sizable military presence in Afghanistan to pursue its strategic goals at a later date.

7- In conclusion; Obama’s insistence on bringing the US troops home on July 11 2011, has undermined America’s ability to meet its operational goals. With only a 100,000 US troops, tight withdrawal deadlines and Europe unwilling to contribute further soldiers, yesterday, Monday, 19.10.2010 through “the International Contact Group on Afghanistan,” America sponsored a conference in Rome, including some 46 countries and international organizations, among them the OIC! Even Iran has attended for the first time. Holbrooke the representative of America said that Iran has a role to play in Afghanistan. The Pentagon is now intensely focused on coercing Pakistan to deploy a greater number of soldiers in the tribal areas and engage the militants residing there. America needs to tame the ferocity of the Pushtun resistance and co-opt some of the Afghan Taliban into the Afghan government, so as to make the nature of the occupation more palatable to the Afghans and minimize the threat to her military presence. But the Pakistani army, fearful of India and overwhelmed by the flood crisis, is reluctant to redeploy extra soldiers.

America has increased her drone attacks on the tribal areas, in way that is provocative even for her agents in Pakistan. She did not confine her assault to the tribes but included Pakistani soldiers as well, which was such an embarrassment to the authority that it forced her to close the border with Afghanistan, through which NATO supplies go, though only temporarily to absorb the anger of the people, then she re-opened it again.

Even with thousands of American soldiers sent to Afghanistan, even with the complicity of the rulers of Pakistan with the United States, and with the increase in drone attacks, and even with the United States attempts to strike a chord with the moderate and non-moderate Taliban, America still remains sunk in a quagmire in Afghanistan. America realizes that she will not be able to save her dignity in Afghanistan, or even a dignified exit, unless she can gain some of the Afghan resistance, i.e. an imitation of the Sahwat plan of Iraq within Afghanistan. It seems that they have not yet succeeded in this matter so America is heading backwards, from bad to worse.

12 Dhul-Qa’dah 1431 AH


Filed under: Asia