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Why fear US Presence in Afghanistan?

By Imtiaz Gul

Weekly Pulse ,Mar 18, 2011

In and outside Pakistan, we often come across the apprehension that the Americans are here to stay. They will not leave Afghanistan and that is why we may have to hedge our bets. These apprehensions primarily stem from the alleged American quest for permanent basis in Afghanistan, a subject that President Hamid Karzai has cleverly deferred to the Parliament – Woolasi Jirga. Most of members seem to have expressed their reservations on the American moves. Sections within the Pakistani military and civilian establishment point to the comprehensive Bagram air base as well as those built at Sheendand (western Farrah province bordering Balkh), Heraat, Tareen Kot (Khowst), Mazare Sharif, Kandahar and Lashkargah (Helmand Province). As a whole the American and NATO troops are reportedly operating from about 90 locations in the length and breadth of Afghanistan. And this seems to constitute the basis for apprehensions within the Pakistani establishment about the long-term American plans on the region. Diplomats in Kabul, on the other hand, say Americans themselves are not coming clean on the issue. Privately, some civilian and military officials drop vague hint that they may be staying on for another decade in Afghanistan – with limited war machinery on the bases (mentioned above). 

At the moment, a lot of construction, remodeling and expansion of bases in the northern, western and eastern parts of Afghanistan is going on. The quantities for steel, cement and other hardware needed for the construction industry are unusual for the Afghan conditions. This, say foreign diplomats, suggests that the US and NATO are investing in military installations for the long run. 

And to keep the roughly 150,000 allied forces well-supplied, according to very conservative estimates, at least five billion dollars a year. This quest for victory and perhaps for long-term hold strategic basis in Afghanistan seems to have set in motion a de facto war economy , which has also thrown up a number of non-governmental vested interests i.e. security contractors, supplies, cargo contractors, and officials that directly deal with and eventually benefit from this interplay of interests. For example, according to a report of the Strategic Forum, US National Defense University, Washington (October 2010), “ In Iraq and Afghanistan, the use of contractors reached a level unprecedented in U.S. military operations. As of March 31, 2010, the United States deployed 175,000 troops and 207,000 contractors in the war zones. Contractors represented 50 percent of the Department of Defense (DOD) workforce in Iraq and 59 percent in Afghanistan. The ratio of 1 contractor to 55 military personnel in Vietnam grew to 1:1 in the Iraq and 1.43:1 in Afghanistan. 

An American daily publication The Nation, counted about 225,000 contractors still actively serving almost the same number of US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan late last year. It said Pentagon’s Special Operations’ budget for these operations was merely three billion dollars in 2003 but it more than tripled in 2010 to over 10 billion. The transportation of the containers carrying food, fuel and defense hardware from Karachi and Central Asia to various points inside Afghanistan alone exceeds four billion dollars a year. 

As a consequence of the flourishing logistics’ business, more than a hundred security and logistics, some representing US and Europe-based firms , and many local ones ( set up by influential families (Karzai, Pir Gilani, and Raheem Wardak, defense minister) have emerged in Afghanistan – all of them geared to cater to the expanding needs of the coalition forces. This obviously means greater concentration of US 

Now, if we look at these developments closely, it means unusual concentration of foreign troops in the short term, and the longer-term presence of a smaller number of American forces next door to Pakistan. And these forces also personnel support from an ally that is by definition adversary to Pakistan i.e. India. Hence the fears of a permanent encirclement by the Indo-Afghan-US-NATO-Alliance from the east and the west. These fears also find their way into the public discourse in Pakistan, and often resonate even outside the country at various fora to justify some of the Pakistani policy decisions such as demands for an end to the Indian presence in Afghanistan, limiting their role or its engagement with the Afghan security apparatus ( such as the training of special police, the army and the intelligence outfits by India). 

Viewed against this backdrop one is tempted to ask as to whether these apprehensions are legitimate at all? Meanwhile it seems pretty imminent that the American presence in Afghanistan is likely to continue beyond the 2014 deadline. And, if the statements by our civil and military leadership were any indicator, most of our future planning on Afghanistan and our own tribal areas (such as political reforms in FATA) are tied to the foreign troops’ presence there. 

This therefore brings us to the fundamental question as to what threats, if any, would the American or foreign bases pose to Pakistan at all? Would they serve as a check on the Taliban militancy and religious radicalism, or fuel the insurgency further? Will they help stabilize Afghanistan or remain a source of instability there? 

Most Pakistani officials – serving and retired – often argue that Afghanistan will remain instable as long as the American-led foreign troops remain there. So, why not initiate a national debate on the issue? Why not involve cross-sections of the society here to discuss as to whether we need to fear and tie our future to the American or Indian presence in Afghanistan, or begin policy formulations independent of what is happening next door? Tying our future to the foreign troops in Afghanistan essentially flows from the obsession with the notion of security-state. And this notion is a direct consequence of the predominance of the military establishment in our foreign policy. 

Given the current testing circumstances it is about time to dispassionately think of a future that is based on an assessment of the real threats that come from within the country i.e. poor governance, indifferent civilian and military ruling elite, a skewed electoral system open to manipulation, and extremely deficient rule of law. 

It is about time to scrutinise the real threats, rather than premising policies and approaches on perceived misplaced threats.

The writer heads the Centre for Research and Security Studies, Islamabad

Email: imtiaz@crss.pk