Afghanistan, where war knows no end
Reaching 100,000 at their peak in 2010, US troops are abandoning Afghanistan these days, leaving this so-called “graveyard of empires” in total shambles. The US “war on terror” launched after 9/11 was first unleashed on Afghanistan in October 2001 and on Iraq two years later. The prime target of the Afghan war was the capture of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, alleged mastermind of 9/11, and Iraqi Saddam Hussein, who was accused of developing weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) to attack the US. Hussein was hanged three years after his capture in 2006, while Bin Laden was killed by crack special forces five years later.
The author of the WMD narrative, Iraqi defector Rafid al-Janabi aka Curveball, admitted in 2011 that he faked the story, which was bought by the German intelligence BND. Passed on to the British MI6 and the CIA, the narrative was hyped by former US president George W. Bush to justify a massive attack on Iraq.
In declaring the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, US President Joe Biden said the war never aimed at “nation-building” but at regime change and the capture of Bin Laden—a clear reversal from Bush who started the war supposedly to bring democracy there. After 20 years, the war has left 47,600 civilians dead, 35,000 Taliban killed, and a devastated economy. The US troop pullout has been criticized as being precipitate and irresponsible, with no clear transition or a lasting peace. While the Afghan government of President Ashraf Ghani and the Taliban are talking in Doha for a possible peace accord, intense fighting between the two forces has intensified in what could yet develop into a civil war. The power vacuum is also expected to embolden Isis and other jihadists to mount an offensive that is bound to cause more instability, with security implications in Central and South Asia.
Enter Russia, China, and other neighboring countries in an effort to strike a peace deal between the corrupt Kabul government and the Taliban. The Afghan conflict topped the agenda of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO)-Afghanistan Contact Group meeting in Tajikistan two weeks ago. With its Xinjiang autonomous region attacked by Uyghur separatists 10 years ago, China’s concern is the presence of the separatist remnants in Afghanistan near the Wakhan corridor. China, Russia, and six other SCO members are set to bankroll Afghanistan’s economic reconstruction. Indisputably, this is the best scenario for the Afghan people, but without any political settlement first the promised financial aid will go to waste.
A landlocked country of 39 million people, Afghanistan lies at the heart of Eurasian geopolitics. Historically, it was overrun by Alexander the Great in the 4th century BC and became in the late 19th century a buffer state between the British and Russian empires. Occupied by the former USSR in 1978, Afghanistan became a socialist state. The country came under the Islamic fundamentalist Taliban in 1996, which was booted out of power after the US invasion five years later.
Biden’s order of withdrawal seeks to allow a US refocus on Asia where China has gained headway, which is seen by US policymakers as a threat to American supremacy in the Indo-Pacific. But Biden’s “Pivot to Asia II” offers no significant economic resources except enhancing the US military encirclement of China with 500 military bases and missile systems aimed at the country of 1.41 billion people.
Inevitably, Biden’s new pivot to Asia will sow more tensions particularly in the South China Sea, with more naval, air force, and carrier deployments challenging China’s maritime claims and its military infrastructure. Naturally, such renewed containment operations will marshal the Pentagon’s alliance system including the Philippines. For this reason, President Duterte will have to drop his suspension of the Visiting Forces Agreement amid constant pressure from both the defense and foreign secretaries, who have made no secret of their hardline stance for a strong defense alliance with the US against China.
If there’s any lesson Philippine authorities can learn from the Afghan war, it is that military force won’t work. With the US achieving nothing after 20 years of war in Afghanistan, the Philippine government should now realize that US presence in the region serves only American interests.
Bobby M. Tuazon is director for policy studies of Center for People Empowerment in Governance and teaches at UP Manila.
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