On March 7, Defense Secretary Robert Gates visited Afghanistan to assess the progress of the war and announced that the United States was “well-positioned” to begin drawing down its 100,000 troops beginning in July, citing “significant” improvements in security in the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar. The drawdown will continue until the end of the foreign combat mission in 2014, when the Afghan security forces are expected to take over the fight against the Taliban.
Afghans, however, see the deadlines as unrealistic and worry that setting time limits emboldens the Taliban and encourages Pakistan and Iran to bolster their proxies to maximize influence once U.S. and NATO troops leave the country.
Afghan leaders have reason for concern. The July deadline coincides with the bloodiest fighting season. While coalition forces have made progress in the south, the Taliban has expanded the conflict to once-peaceful regions in the north and east. The U.N. says “security in the country is at its lowest point” and that 2010 was the “deadliest year” for Afghan civilians in nine years. The Taliban leadership enjoys a safe haven in Pakistan, and NATO officials say Iran also provides the insurgents with weapons and training. Military experts acknowledge that Afghan forces will not be ready to lead the fight against the Taliban any time soon.
It is against this backdrop that the Afghan leaders seek a pact with the United States to guarantee Afghanistan’s long-term security and stability, including the possibility of establishing permanent U.S. military bases on Afghan soil. U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham first suggested the idea last December, arguing it would help “secure the gains” made in the country over the past nine years. Since Pres. Hamid Karzai confirmed in early February that he was in talks with U.S. officials about the issue, there has been an outpouring of support for the proposal inside Afghanistan.
Defense Minister Rahim Wardak said U.S. permanent bases would serve as a guarantee for Afghanistan’s long-term security and stability. On March 4, former Interior Minister Hanif Atmar and ex-intelligence chief Amrullah Saleh told a joint press conference in Kabul that Afghanistan needed a permanent U.S. military presence to ward off the Taliban and al-Qaeda, and warned that the consequences would be dire if foreign troops left prematurely. Atta Mohammad Noor, the influential governor of northern Balkh Province, said permanent U.S. bases would discourage neighbors’ interference. On March 8, the Mishrano Jirga, Afghanistan’s upper house of parliament, declared support for the scheme, warning that “if U.S. forces leave Afghanistan, the vacuum will be filled by the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and the Pakistanis.” Analysts on Tolo TV warned Afghanistan would “plunge into civil war” if foreign troops left hastily (Tolo TV, Feb. 9).
The push for permanent bases has alarmed the insurgent groups. The Taliban released a ten-article statement condemning permanent bases as occupation (AIP, Feb. 11). Hezb-e Islami leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar issued a similar rebuke (AIP, Feb. 11).
Iranian leaders also flew into a fury. “What are you doing in Afghanistan? Why are military bases established in the region? Are you here to help or for division?” Iran’s Pres. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told a gathering in Tehran (Tolo TV, Feb. 11). On March 8, Iran’s interior minister, Mostafa Mohammad Najjar, visited Kabul and voiced Tehran’s objection to the proposed U.S. permanent bases. “The Islamic Republic is opposed to the presence of foreign troops and their military bases in the region. It is not in the interest of our nation and [in the interest of] Afghans. Whenever they [Americans] have come to this region, they have brought insecurity and terrorism,” he told Afghan journalists.
WikiLeaks earlier revealed that Karzai had offered Kandahar and Bagram airfields as permanent U.S. bases — a proposal rejected by both U.S. ambassador Karl Eikenberry and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. But Gates said in Kabul that a team of U.S. officials would be in Afghanistan next week to begin negotiations over a post-2014 agreement between the two countries.
A long-term security pact with Afghanistan, including an agreement on establishing permanent military bases there, would greatly help the fight against terrorism. It would boost the confidence of Afghan leaders to fight the terrorists, help to train and enable the Afghan security forces to defend against the return of the Taliban and al-Qaeda, and signal to Pakistan that the Taliban will never succeed in Afghanistan. A small U.S. military presence there beyond 2014 will also help to check the Taliban and al-Qaeda’s growing influence in Pakistan and Central Asia.
— Ahmad Majidyar is a senior research associate at the American Enterprise Institute.