In October 1944, with the end of World War II in sight, Winstonand Joseph passed a note back and forth to each other at a conference in Moscow. On the piece of paper, had assigned percentages to several Eastern European countries. amended the numbers and agreed. The deal remained secret for nearly a decade.
The percentages on the piece of paper referred to the amount of influence that the Soviet Union and the West would wield in Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia and Greece, with the first three countries falling in the Soviet sphere, control divided evenly in Yugoslavia, and Greece staying in the Western camp. It was the first major articulation of the geopolitical “spheres of influence” that would characterize the Cold War era.
What an Afghan Peace Deal Could Look Like
During the first post-elections in Eastern Europe, communist and non-communist parties vied for power, eventually cobbling together different versions of coalition governments. Ultimately, however, the communist parties seized control, except in Greece, where the West intervened in a civil to help defeat leftist insurgents. By 1948, the region looked very much like the agreement that and had drawn up.
The Long War
Today, the end of a much longerappears to be approaching. The fighting has lasted nearly two decades, the most protracted conflict the has ever endured. This is, in turn, part of a much larger battle that has been variously described as “America’s endless wars,” the “ ” or simply the “long ” that began in the wake of the attacks of , though earlier skirmishes took place during the 1990s.
Theadministration is currently trying to negotiate a spheres-of-influence arrangement that resembles what laid out in 1944. The American-backed government in , according to this proposal, would share power with the insurgent forces as an interim step until elections can be held under a new constitution.
Such a deal would make it easier for theto withdraw all of its 3,500 soldiers from by May 1, as laid out in a peace deal signed in 2020. Even if that withdrawal goes through, however, the institutional apparatus of the larger “long ” will still be operational. forces remain in Iraq and Syria, and the Pentagon eyes the civil in Libya with concern.
In all, after drawdownsand Iraq, about 50,000 troops are stationed in the greater Middle East, with 7,000 mostly naval personnel in Bahrain, 13,000 soldiers in Kuwait and a roughly equal number in Qatar, 5,000 in the United Arab Emirates and several thousand in Saudi Arabia. Special Forces are also scattered across Africa, while the is still conducting air operations throughout the region.
But, as in 1944, the preliminary discussion of a power-sharing arrangementsuggests that the active phase of the “long ” is coming to an end. The specific adversaries — al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and various smaller global actors — have more or less been defeated. Local groups that have battled forces, like , remain powerful, as do adversarial governments like Bashar al-Assad’s in Syria, but they don’t pose a threat to the homeland. Larger geopolitical rivalries, with Russia and Iran in particular, continue to shape the conflicts in the region, but the has already established an uneven pattern of engagement and containment with these actors.
If history is to be replayed, thewill wind down direct combat in favor of a tense cold war and intermittent “out-of-area” operations. The end of this “long ” against the architects of the 9/11 attacks and their supporters is long overdue. The administration is eager to focus on “building back better” at home, enjoy a post- economic expansion and beef up the capacity to challenge China and, to a lesser extent, Russia. The administration is reassessing its military capabilities to reflect these priorities.
All of this begs the question: Will it be possible to avoid repeating the 1945 scenario by ending the “long” and not replacing it with a cold war?
After promising to end the forever wars during the 2020 election campaign, Presidentis eager to enjoy his own “mission accomplished” moment . But that pledge comes with a couple asterisks.
For one,would like to maintain a “counterterrorism” force with the permission of . Such an agreement would parallel the arrangement in Iraq, where the government allows around 2,500 troops to focus on suppressing any remnants of the Islamic State (as well as reining in Iran-backed paramilitaries). Second, has in the past broached the possibility of moving military bases from to Pakistan, where they would continue to serve their counterterrorism function. It’s not at all clear whether or Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan would be enthusiastic about these options.
At the moment, theis paying a relatively low price for its continued presence . After last year’s peace deal, there haven’t been any combat deaths in the country, which means that is basically absent from the hearts and minds of Americans. The US foreign policy community would like to preserve that status quo as long as possible, particularly given the post-withdrawal prospects of “ethnic cleansing, mass slaughter and the ultimate dismemberment of the country,” as Madiha Afzal and Michael O’Hanlon of Brookings have written. Similar arguments were made around the proposed withdrawal of the bulk of troops from Iraq, and yet those worst-case scenarios haven’t come to pass.
In recent days, the warnings abouthave increased. According to The New York Times:
“American intelligence agencies have told theadministration that if . troops leave before a power-sharing settlement is reached between and the government, the country could fall largely under the control of within two or three years after the withdrawal of international forces. That could potentially open the door for to rebuild its strength within the country, according to American officials.”
It doesn’t take an intelligence agency to predict thatwill play a major role in any future , with or without a power-sharing settlement. control about 20% of the country with as much as 85,000 full-time soldiers (though the areas under control are relatively underpopulated). At the same time, the insurgents are active over a much larger stretch — as much as 70% of the country — and are putting pressure on a number of key cities, including Kunduz in the north and Kandahar in the south.
In other words, there’s a good possibility that regardless of power-sharing arrangements,will simply take over the country, much as the communists did throughout Eastern Europe in the late 1940s. Given the record of the Taliban’s last sojourn in power, the prospect of a reestablishment of their rule is very sobering.
But thehas failed in two decades to defeat with the full force of its military. Keeping a few thousand soldiers in the country is not going to change the balance of power on the ground. “The hawks argue that to leave is simply unthinkable until someday when they have finished winning the ,” writes Scott Horton in his new book, “Enough Already: Time to End the on Terrorism.” “But they lost the more than a decade ago, and no one who protested against Trump’s drawdown had a single coherent thing to say about how staying there is supposed to somehow change the reality of power in that country.”
Won’tagain become a safe haven for international terrorists once the troops withdraw along with their NATO partners? For all their immersion in Islamic religion and culture, are Pashtun nationalists interested above all in kicking out the foreigners. They’re not big fans of the Islamic State group, but they do maintain a close relationship at the moment with the 200-250 al-Qaeda militants in the country. Take NATO out of the equation, however, and that relationship will likely fray at the seams, particularly if international recognition, access to the global economy and the support of powerful neighbors like Russia and Iran depend on a verifiable divorce.
When he proposed the two spheres of influence,was not relying on the goodwill of the Soviet state. The British leader hated and communism. He was taking a clear-eyed look at the balance of power at the time and striking what he thought was the best deal he could, even if that meant “losing” most of Eastern Europe. A power-sharing arrangement with that “loses” is comparably pragmatic. But will it be accompanied by other, equally pragmatic policies to bring the long to an end?
The Rest of the War
The “endless wars” are obviously not just being fought by the 3,500 troopsand 2,500 soldiers in Iraq. As the Bush administration transitioned to the Obama era and fatigue began to set in, the shifted its focus from ground operations to an air for instance, as the number of troops declined from a high of 100,000 in 2011, the number of airstrikes steadily increased, with a peak in terms of bombs dropped in 2018 and 2019 and a consequent rise in casualties. “The number of civilians killed by international airstrikes increased about 330 percent from 2016, the last full year of the Obama Administration, to 2019, the most recent year for which there is complete data from the United Nations,” reports Neta Crawford of the Costs of project. Throughout the greater Middle East, the has launched in excess of 14,000 drone strikes, which have killed as many as 16,000 people, including several hundred children.
Since taking office, as I note in my recent study of Biden’s take on multilateralism, the new administration has launched two airstrikes, one against Iranian targets in Syria on February 25 and the other in Iraq on February 9 against the Islamic State. The Syrian attack, in particular, has prompted a bipartisan effort in Congress to repeal the Authorizations for the Use of Military Force (passed in 1991 and 2002) in order to narrow the presidential ability to launch future airstrikes.
Meanwhile, the administration has yet to report any drone strikes. This is in marked contrast to the strikes that Barack Obama and Donald Trump ordered almost immediately upon taking office as well as the escalation in attacks that took place in Trump’s final months. In one of its first orders, theadministration issued a temporary halt to any drone strikes outside of combat areas such as and Syria. As Charli Carpenter, an expert in the laws of , points out:
“Essentially whatis doing is he’s moving the barometer back to where it was before Trump devolved authority for drone strikes away from the executive branch and into the hands of commanders. What that means is that anytime a drone strike is envisioned, it needs to be approved by the White House. There’s going to be a much higher level of oversight and much more concern over the legal nuances of each strike. It will just make drones harder to use, and you can imagine the weaponized drones will only be used in the most extreme cases.”
In addition to initiating a review of drone strikes, the administration has launched a probe into Special Forces operations to ascertain whether they have adhered to the Pentagon’s “law of” requirements. In effect, the administration is applying greater oversight across the range of military operations to bring them into closer compliance with international rules and regulations. Such oversight, however, does not imply the end of the endless wars.
For that to happen, thewould have to dramatically shrink its global military footprint, the constellation of bases around the world that serve as the launching pad for myriad operations. About 220,000 military and civilian personnel operate in more than 150 countries and over 800 overseas military bases. A significant chunk of the Pentagon’s $700 billion-plus budget goes toward maintaining this immense archipelago of force.
In early February, theadministration also announced a Global Posture Review to assess the . footprint. Such a review is much needed. After all, did this massive apparatus save a single one of the more than half a million Americans who have died from COVID-19? Is the Pentagon protecting the from climate change (or merely contributing to the problem with its own carbon emissions and its protection of overseas fossil fuel production and distribution)? And all that “forward-based defense” has done absolutely nothing to safeguard infrastructure from cyberattacks like the SolarWinds hack (that, by the way, gained access to the emails of Trump’s cybersecurity team at the Department of Homeland Security).
For the time being, the architects of the Global Posture Review are thinking primarily of refocusing “strategic capabilities” against China in the Far East and Russia in the Arctic. But that just replaces one set of threats with another, which will adjust the footprint without actually reducing it.
So, let’s remember that the 3,500 American troopsare just the tip of the iceberg. For the to avoid the fate of the Titanic — also famous at one time for being immense and impregnable — it had better address the rest of the icy hazard of .
*[This article was originally published by FPIF.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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