When will we leave Afghanistan?

“…the US army must stay until the Iraqi army is fully ready in 2020.” So says the top US solider in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Babaker Zerbari. He added that the planned withdrawal will create a “problem” and increase instability in Iraq. The US government plans to withdraw its combat troops by the end of August 2010, and to remove all troops by the end of 2011.

This has interesting implications for the US strategy in Afghanistan, where president Obama wants to start troop withdrawal starting July 2011. A year before that deadline, things in the AfPak region are far from stable, unlike in Iraq; this means a slower withdrawal.

Saddam Hussein, undoubtedly, was evil. Nevertheless, Iraq has been a progressive and secular society. It was the only country in the middle-east where one could put up a Christmas tree, and women were not necessitated to don a coverall, not drive or not go to work. While the country was predominantly Muslim, there was a sense of national identity, except for some dissension in the northern province of Kurdistan. Before the US invasion, Iraq had a million-man military, one of the largest in the world at that time.

In contrast, Afghanistan has never really been one nation. Until 1973, when a bloodless coup removed the king Zahir Shah, it was a monarchy. However, this Afghani kingdom only came to be in 1919. Before that it was either a transit for invaders to cross over to India, or was a part of an empire, either Indian or Iranian. During much of the 19th century it was a part of the ‘Great Game‘ between Britain and Russia, which continued even after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, ending when they became allies in WWII.

Without a federal authority, there have been several centers of power around the country throughout Afghanistan’s history; all politics is really local here. The populace is used to continual wars as fortunes have shifted. To complicate matters further, there are the majority (about two-thirds) Pashtuns in the east and south, while the minorities of Uzbeks are in the north and those with Persian heritage occupy the west. And they don’t like each other.

When the Soviets invaded, they had almost as much troops (100,000) as we have now (110,000) and were helped by an equal number of Afghan forces. They stayed there about the same time that we have been (almost 10 years), and when they left in 1989, the whole country was in tatters, without any central governance. Today, the situation is no better than it was two decades ago.

In other words, Afghanistan does not have any central command and control, no feeling of national allegiance and no viable armed forces. It does not have the structure or institutions to become a Westphalian nation-state.

If it will take 10 years for us to leave Iraq in toto, we will be in Afghanistan for a long, long time. Gen. David Petraeus, the US commander in Afghanistan, has started to hedge on that deadline, and VP Biden says US troop withdrawal could be limited. Even president Obama stated that “We didn’t say we’d be switching off the lights and closing the door behind us,” in July 2011!

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