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The United States and Afghanistan: A Diminishing Transactional Relationship

From: Asia Policy
Number 17, January 2014
pp. 6-12 | 10.1353/asp.2014.0006

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The United States has a long and varied history of engagement with Afghanistan. But through all the tortuous turns and ups and downs, the relationship, from the U.S. perspective, has almost always been a transactional one. Given its “front line” status, Afghanistan has usually been a pawn in a bigger strategic game, initially between the Communist bloc and the capitalist countries in the region (including Iran under the shah, Pakistan, and India) and subsequently between the secular world and radicalized Islam. Afghanistan’s current status as a ward of the United States and international community is unusual and will not last.

This essay suggests that regardless of whether a bilateral security agreement (BSA) is signed between Afghanistan and the United States, and assuming Afghanistan does not again become a haven for terrorism targeting the United States, U.S. interest will diminish. So too will U.S. resources invested in the country—whether military, economic, developmental, or diplomatic. Neighboring powers, such as India, Iran, and Pakistan, who have an immediate stake in a secure, stable Afghanistan, will become more important players. Long memories, the need for strategic depth, and the fear that Afghan soil will once again become a battleground for proxy warfare will militate against the realization of the Afghan government’s vision of the country as the peaceful and prosperous “heart of Asia.”

The History of U.S. Engagement in Afghanistan

A brief review of the relationship between the United States and Afghanistan is instructive. Following World War II, the United States and the Soviet Union competed to maintain influence with Afghan rulers, as the British and Russian Empires had done in the previous century, using modest levels of technical, military, and development assistance—the Great Game once again played out in Afghanistan. After the invasion of 1979, the United States sought to undermine Soviet power by supporting the mujahideen, using Pakistani security forces as the delivery mechanism. Once the Soviet Union left in 1989 and the Najibullah regime collapsed in 1992, Afghanistan dropped off the U.S. radar until the Taliban swept into Kabul in 1996. Then followed a period in which the United States had an ambivalent relationship with Afghanistan: not recognizing the Islamic emirate that controlled 90% of the country, but intermittently engaging with its authorities through intermediaries on specific issues; providing some humanitarian support through the United Nations and the Red Cross/Red Crescent; encouraging private-sector interest in a pipeline across the country; and expressing concern about women’s rights.

All that changed with September 11. Having decisively ejected the Taliban in a lightning military campaign, the United States promoted a Western and largely multilateral agenda to stabilize and reconstruct the country and rebuild its institutions and economy. But by 2006, as the Taliban reasserted their presence and security began once again to deteriorate, the United States had moved to a counterinsurgency approach. By 2009 and the Obama administration’s “surge,” this had mushroomed into a full-blown military and state-building campaign with an annual price tag over $120 billion—perhaps the most ambitious the world has seen in the last 50 years.

Next Steps in U.S.-Afghanistan Relations: The Short Term

U.S. engagement in Afghanistan will continue to evolve. In the short to medium term, much depends on whether a BSA between Afghanistan and the United States is signed. As for the longer term, predictions are unwise, but the country’s strategic importance to the United States is likely to diminish unless Afghanistan once again becomes an incubator for transnational terrorism.

Afghanistan with a BSA

If a BSA is signed, there is no guarantee that Afghanistan will continue to be a recipient of exceptional levels of U.S. assistance—currently higher in per capita terms than any other country excepting Israel—but the prospects will be stronger that the administration will have enough political support to honor the pledges it made in Chicago and Tokyo for military and civilian support, respectively, until 2016.

With continued financial and technical support for its armed forces and levels of aid commensurate with the needs of a country of 30 million people, which includes millions of refugees and displaced persons, Afghanistan has a...

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