While the Afghan war is well into its fifteenth year, its end seems to be as controversial and complex as the very start of the war and its conduct have been throughout.

US thinks troop levels in Afghanistan should be determined by conditions on the ground and not by an artificial timetable

Whereas the U.S. does not want to completely abandon Afghanistan, the regional countries do not want a long-term U.S. military presence at all.

A clear divergence of interests, therefore, exists, which continues to add fuel to the fire. As the death toll rises in Afghanistan, so does the lobbying in the U.S. official circles for a longer stay in Afghanistan. Leaving Afghanistan wide open to its competitors is something that the U.S. cannot strategically afford. Nor can it possibly continue to fight the war.

To accomplish both objectives, a two-edged policy is being followed whereby the path for a ‘relative exit’ is being made. Neither does a full withdrawal nor a large military presence appear a feasible option to the U.S. policy makers.

In his recent testimony to the House Armed Services Committee, Gen. John Campbell was reported to have said, “Afghanistan is at an inflection point” and it could easily explode into the worst possible scenario that the U.S. might have hitherto faced.

What might cause the explosion is that of the 407 district centers in Afghanistan, eight are fully under insurgents’ control, 18 are under insurgents’ influence and up to 94 district centers are “at risk”, he further added. Hence, his strong emphasis on the need for reviewing the ‘original plan’ regarding the U.S. forces’ future stay in Afghanistan.

The testimony is arguably a balanced reflection of the ground situation. What, however, was conspicuously missing from it was the element of ‘dialogue’ with the Taliban — a policy that seems to be running counter to the General’s views regarding prolonging the military’s stay in Afghanistan. Hence the question: If the Taliban are gradually heading towards engulfing the entire country, or posing such a risk as Campbell had made members of the committee believe, why should they be brought to the negotiating table at all?

While the war in Afghanistan has expanded during the past four to five years with Pakistan’s ‘blessings’, such an expansion suits U.S.’ own interests, one Pakistani official from the foreign ministry told me. He said such a scenario allows the U.S. to build the case for longer stay in Afghanistan.

While this may seem to be a somewhat ‘strange’ position, the dual strategy the U.S. is currently following shows that the purpose of negotiations is not an ‘absolute exit’ from Afghanistan. The U.S. does want to end the war; it does not want to leave Afghanistan the way it had to leave Vietnam in 1970s.

That is to say, the purpose of negotiations with the Taliban, as far as the U.S.’ position is concerned, is to bring the Taliban to the point of accepting some sort of U.S. military presence in Afghanistan. Officials engaged in these negotiations at various levels have been reporting the U.S. officials’ insistence on retaining some military bases in Afghanistan.

That such a scenario is being strongly contemplated within the U.S. official policy circles was tacitly confirmed in Campbell’s testimony. For him, any drastic reduction in the number of the U.S. military installations from 852 to 20 would only serve the Taliban’s cause. To prevent such an ultimate catastrophe, many members of the committee including its chairman, John McCain, seem to be leaning to the belief that a long-term military commitment is essential.

General Campbell and John McCain seem to have received the support of General Nicholson, who has replaced Campbell in Afghanistan as the new commander of the U.S. forces in Afghanistan. In his written response to questions from the Senate committee and during the confirmation hearing, General Nicholson agreed that the security situation in Afghanistan was getting worse. As expected, he also concurred with Senator McCain’s assertion that troop levels should be determined by conditions on the ground and not by an artificial timetable.

While the case for a longer stay is certainly being built to ‘convince’ the American public of its utmost necessity, the risk the Taliban is posing to Afghanistan is high.

The U.S. is going for a relative exit and retention of strategically significant bases, especially those built around TAPI pipeline’s route, to avoid the possibility of leaving Afghanistan wide open for Chinese, Pakistani, Russian and Iranian expansion. Retaining an effective, if not large, military presence in Afghanistan has, therefore, become all the more important for the U.S. since the emergence of Russia as a major player, alongside the U.S., in the Mid-Eastern geo-political chess board.

While a negotiated ‘relative exit’ would allow the U.S. to stay relevant in the regional game, such a scenario would also enable the U.S. government to sell it politically at home. There is widespread talk in Washington DC among conservatives that bumbling by the administration of US President Barack Obama by not intervening in Syria has cost the Iraqi government a major portion of its hard-won soil during the U.S.-Iraq war.

Therefore, the situation in the Middle East and the way it has gone into retrogression for the U.S. and its allies is leaving a strong impact on the U.S. policy makers regarding making an ‘absolute exit’ from Afghanistan, and facing another potential risk. Strategically speaking, military presence in Afghanistan would allow the U.S. to stay relevant in Russia’s ‘under-belly’ as well as China’s ‘Silk Road.’

The ‘Afghan conundrum’ is, therefore, no longer about fighting ‘terrorism’; it is more about retaining whatever gains the U.S. has made during 15 years of war. Yesterday’s ‘terrorists’ have already been officially transformed into today’s ‘insurgents.’

A vital military presence, achieved through a negotiated settlement with the ‘insurgents’, is central to securing military bases; and this is precisely what both the U.S. and the Afghan Government are trying to achieve through various diplomatic channels they have opened up recently.

Salman Rafi Sheikh is a freelance journalist and research analyst of international relations and Pakistan affairs. His area of interest is South and West Asian politics, the foreign policies of major powers, and Pakistani politics. He can be reached at salmansheikh.ss11.sr@gmail.com

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