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Quitting Afghanistan cold turkey


US President Barack Obama has tried to make his position clear on the Middle East. However, with the obvious exception of the explicit endorsement of the pre-1967 borders for the two states of Israel and Palestine, there were no surprises in his highly anticipated MidEast speech. Even less clear is the administration's long term policy for the future of Afghanistan.

Obama has been under growing pressure to bring US troops back home from Afghanistan. Public support for that war is dwindling. And with Osama bin Laden dead, the Obama administration has decided that troop withdrawal should start this year.

A withdrawal from Afghanistan will have major ramifications for the region. Afghanistan is not a functioning state. It remains on the brink of failure. Corruption and cronyism is rampant and its security forces are in no position to withstand the Taliban surge that will inevitably follow the US withdrawal. The recent attack on Qandahar, Afghanistan's second largest city, gave a taste of that.

A US withdrawal is also likely to embolden the Pakistani secret service, the Inter-Services Intelligence. The ISI is widely believed to foster Islamists to be used as proxies in the Indian-controlled Kashmir and Afghanistan. The 2008 coordinated attacks in Mumbai have been traced to ISI, while links with the Afghan Taliban are well-documented.

Even more devastating for the US is the discovery that bin Laden may have lived under the nose of the Pakistani military for years. This raises serious questions about the reliability of the US-Pakistani alliance in relation to Islamic terror. And it points to the mindset of the ISI: partnership with Washington is great, but we live in this neighbourhood and cannot afford to be squeamish about whom we use to undermine arch-enemy India and further our reach.

A US withdrawal from Afghanistan risks putting the region on a slide into turmoil. Yet it would be consistent with Obama's declared sentiment to break with the past practice in the greater Middle East.

At his famous Cairo speech in 2009, President Obama declared his administration will not be imposing expectations of political reform on the Muslim world and would not interfere in their internal affairs. The Arab Spring put this commitment to the test.

While critics have accused Obama of wavering to support the popular uprising for democracy, he has managed to walk a tight rope. He has done well to keep out of the Arab Spring, allowing it to evolve as a spontaneous grassroots movement for democracy.

The urgent question for the administration will have to focus on the limits of the Obama doctrine. How far back can the US withdraw from the internal affairs of the Muslim Middle East, before it starts to hurt US interests?

Iran plays an important role in the above calculation. So far, Iran has played its hand badly and has made no gains out of the opportunities that the changing landscape presents.

Iran has been rid of two major security threats, thanks to the US removal of the Taliban and Saddam Hussein. More recently, the popular surge in the Arab world has put its rival regimes in Egypt and Saudi Arabia under the squeeze.

The situation in Syria, a close ally of Iran, may be troubling for Tehran. But in the grand scheme of things, the popular revolt against the entrenched status quo holds significant promise for Iran.

Yet, the Iranian leadership (in contrast to its Turkish counterpart) has demonstrated little political acumen to capitalise on these opportunities to assert Iran as a responsible regional state, let alone as a regional leader. While Iran has the potential to influence its neighbourhood, ideological constraints and internal strife in the leadership have seriously undermined its effectiveness.

Obama is faced with a difficult decision. A complete withdrawal from Afghanistan could have major ramifications for the region and ultimately for US interests. He appears to have given in to the domestic pressure for withdrawal, but his administration would be well-advised to adopt a gradualist and long-term strategy. 

Shahram AkbarzadehShahram Akbarzadeh is Professor of Asian Politics (Middle East and Central Asia) and Deputy Director of the National Centre of Excellence for Islamic Studies at the University of Melbourne.  


Topic tags: Middle East, Mideast speech, Obama, Osama bin Laden, withdrawal from Afghanistan



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Existing comments

I was disappointed with this article. I would have liked some more context and some more argument, especially from the Deputy Director of a 'centre of excellence'. When past American meddling in this region has achieved little, and arguably made things worse, why should we believe that more meddling will achieve anything more positive?

Ginger Meggs | 25 May 2011  

http://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=frontline+kill+capture&aq=0&oq=frontline%3A+kill+ The US is engaged in wholesale slaughter.

Marilyn Shepherd | 25 May 2011  

I have to agree with Ginger Meggs. I also beg to differ.Afganistan has always been a 'failed state as the various tribal groups have little if any concept of Nationhood as we understand it in the west. Pakistan, and India like their neighbour, were creations made by western interests in the 17-18th century. History should teach us that since the 17th century, no major power who went into Afghanistan has come out on top. The Brits and the Russians have both got a bloody nose out of their incursions into this feudal land. My guess is the other Afghan groups will ensure that the Taliban never regains the power it exercised rather briefly and brutally.Memories in this part of the world are very very long! Sure there will be instability in the region-that has been the case for several centuries at least, but as for a threat to so called Western interests - well if that interest is resources yes, but otherwise no. I believe it is time for us to leave.

Gavin O'Brien | 25 May 2011  

This article gets no support from me either, and I agree totally with previous comments. "We need to support American interests, blah blah blah....(I am an American citizen living in Aus, by the way, asking just what "interests" are you talking about?!) The writer needs to absorb the awful reality of THIS: http://afghansforpeace.org/archives/1291

I do think America/Australia has to start taking some major ongoing responsibility even during and after the draw-down of troops:

Besides noting the obvious responsiblity that military and defence forces have to provide support for any depressed or PTSD-afflicted and suicide-prone (soldiers) involved in such carnage, just WHO is going to take responsibility for providing the emotional/mental support and care now needed by the multitude of traumatised and injured survivors and family members connected to all these slain innocents throughout Afghanistan?

How can healing and restoration of trust ever even be imagined? What process will it require? (I am truly interested in the writer's - or other readers' responses - to that question.)

One might also ask "What can I, as just one individual, do about all this?" Take these good suggestions to heart from the thoughtful Afghans for Peace at the "news" section of the website I pointed out above! All that should be in the American "interest."

Clair Hochstetler | 25 May 2011  

They chased away the British and the Russians.....The Afghans will still be doing their own thing (whatever that might turn out to be),long after the present occupiers have returned home.

Claude Rigney | 28 May 2011  

thanks for writing such a information

sneha | 27 July 2017  

thanks for given good information

thara | 27 July 2017  

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