Afghanistan’s president, Mr. Hamid Karzai, has announced that he wants a formal long-term strategic relationship with the United States. That seems only natural: The U.S. led the invasion of Afghanistan that put Mr. Karzai in power. Others worry that such a relationship could result in a permanent U.S. presence in the country, which could prove unsettling to other nations in the region. Worse, they fear that such a U.S. presence might provoke instability. Given Afghanistan’s history, a vacuum is the bigger danger.
Afghanistan has long been an arena of international competition. Over a century ago, Britain and Russia played “the Great Game” across its snowy heights as the two countries fought over access to India. Two decades ago, the Soviet Union tried to impose its own government on Afghanistan’s restive warlords, setting off another superpower struggle as the U.S. and its allies — Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, prime among them — backed insurgents against the communist regime.
The Soviets lost that war, but no one truly won. Afghanistan descended into chaos as warlords fought for control of the country. Pakistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia backed various groups as they struggled for influence in a nation they each saw as key to their future. The Pakistan-backed Taliban prevailed, but the Islamic government of Mullah Omar antagonized the world with its extremist views and then threw its lot in with Osama bin Laden. Kabul’s refusal to hand over bin Laden after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, prompted a U.S.-led international invasion. The Taliban were routed, and Mr. Karzai took power after historic elections late last year.
Mr. Karzai needs international support. His government is weak and under attack from all sides. The country is being rebuilt from the ground up, and its building blocks continue to be tribes that have dominated local politics in the past. The United Nations has disarmed some 50,000 of the 60,000 combatants that fought in the invasion, but it is estimated that another 100,000 men with weapons remain in Afghanistan.
Today, there are about 25,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan backing Mr. Karzai’s government. There are some 22,000 men in the newly formed Afghan army and another 30,000 police. The Kabul government does not have complete control of the country, and there is growing concern that the Taliban are regrouping for protracted war.
In the past, the West abandoned Afghanistan when its primary military objective was achieved. The result was chaos and internecine warfare to fill the vacuum. Hopefully that mistake will not be repeated. If a strategic relationship with the U.S. is needed to ensure that Washington remains focused on events in the region and to prevent the emergence of a vacuum, then such an arrangement makes sense for all concerned.
The danger is that a permanent U.S. presence — which has been discussed, but not agreed — will worry Central and South Asian powers such as India and China, which are likely to see the move as an attempt by the U.S. to extend its reach into their sphere of influence. Pakistan, too, is likely to be worried about a U.S. presence if it counters Islamabad’s influence: Members of Pakistan’s intelligence services reportedly have seen Afghanistan as a useful tool and training ground in its struggle to free Kashmir from India.
Afghanistan’s northern neighbors are also likely to be worried about a long-term U.S. presence in the country. The Bush administration’s commitment to spreading democracy is troubling to the autocratic leaders of Central Asia. They are already feeling ripples from the “Tulip Revolution” in Kyrgyzstan. The prospect of a permanent U.S. presence providing backing for prodemocracy forces is disturbing. (Hosting a U.S. base, however, as Kyrgyzstan currently does, might be less troubling: It could insulate a government from Washington’s pressure for change).
The Afghans’ historical animosity toward foreign forces is another reason to be cautious. A U.S. presence could become a lightning rod for attacks and might prove destabilizing, thus risking deeper engagement and conflict. It would also confirm to many the image of the U.S. as an expansionist power. The fact that Afghanistan is a Muslim country, where a U.S. presence would likely be seen as particularly inflammatory, provides yet more grounds for caution.
A permanent long-term relationship does not necessarily mean setting up bases. It does mean that the U.S. must stay engaged and attentive to developments in Afghanistan. That is the least the international community can do, given that nation’s sorry history when the world turns its back on the destruction that has been visited upon Afghanistan.
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