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Quitting Afghanistan cold turkey

  • 25 May 2011

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