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The Afghan withdrawal and US global retrenchment

May 24, 2013

Originally published in Aspenia Online of the Aspen Institute Italia

KABUL, Afghanistan — Over the past few months, American military fatigues, once omnipresent in the streets of Kabul, have gradually faded into the background. Green-uniformed soldiers of the Afghan National Army, and local policemen, have been handed much of the Afghan capital’s security, as well as an increasingly large share of the rest of the country. Already, the US military withdrawal from Afghanistan, which is slated for completion in 2014 but has already begun in earnest, brought American troops on the ground from a peak of over 100,000 in 2011 to less than 70,000 today.

In Kabul, the ongoing security transition is experienced with a mix of relief and concern: relief for the departure of the foreign troops and the end of over a decade of international military presence in the country, and concern for what lies ahead. Security-wise once ISAF soldiers – the UN-mandated, NATO-led International Security Assistance Force which has presided over the country since the summer of 2003 – are gone and the national army and police are left alone to confront the Taliban insurgency. Afghans also appear to have mixed feelings in terms of the true extent of American power – interestingly, just like Americans themselves.

“Originally, the announcement that the Americans would leave was interpreted as a kind of weakness, and the Taliban are definitely still publicizing this view,” says Omar Sharifi, Director of the Institute for Afghanistan Studies in Kabul. “But I believe that’s no longer true. I think it’s just a matter of the natural evolution of events, a shift of strategy because a different war is taking place.” For Sharifi, what matters most now for the well-being of Afghanistan is not the presence of foreign troops, which would anyway be unsustainable in the long run, but the US’ (and EU’s) support for governance and institution building, support that has already been pledged.

At the same time, Sharifi adds, for many Afghans US power remains invincible. “People believe that if the Americans want to do something, they can.” Somewhat surprisingly, this blind faith in the sheer power of the US armed forces is what lies behind many of the conspiracy theories that inhabit this mountainous land. “Whatever happens, people think the hand of the US is behind it, therefore if something goes wrong it must be that the US probably planned it that way.”

At home and abroad, the decision by the US to pull out of Afghanistan by the end of next year – though the country is far from stabilized today and most likely won’t be by then either – has also fueled a debate about the global role of the US, amidst speculations that, not unlike its European counterparts, America is now an older and more tired country, wiser maybe, but certainly less dynamic. The perception by some of a waning American power is compounded by Washington’s reluctance to intervene in the bloody civil war in Syria as well as the decision, in 2011, to only contribute air support to the international mission in Libya without putting any US boots on the ground. President Barack Obama’s choice of Chuck Hagel to lead the Pentagon during his second term at the White House is also sometimes viewed in the same light, since Hagel appears tasked, among other things, with implementing drastic cuts to the military budget.

Overall these are the trademark of President Obama’s pragmatic worldview, which seeks engagement when necessary but otherwise, mostly because of the difficult economic conditions he inherited when he arrived at the White House, prefers to focus his policy efforts domestically, for the purpose, as he has often said, “of nation building here at home”.

Whether they approve of it or not, by and large American observers agree that this is his signature approach, destined to last only so long, and are generally disinclined to compare the US’ foreign and defense policy to that of the European Union. They view this moment of American caution mostly as temporary, due to circumstances (such as voters’ fatigue after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the economic crisis) and easily reversible.

“These decisions do in fact represent a common preference to reduce engagement,” says Michael O’Hanlon, Director of Research for the Foreign Policy program at the Brookings Institution. He notes, however, a few important caveats. “The drawdown in Afghanistan is quite gradual and we have ‘rebalanced’ our military and diplomacy towards the Asia-Pacific over the last couple of years while still telling Iran there are limits to our patience,” he says.

According to Jim Phillips, Senior Research Fellow for Middle Eastern Affairs at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., “the Obama Administration has made the US the ‘dispensable’ nation through its ‘lead from behind’ passivity on many issues, but a new president could spark a revitalization of US power and purpose, or new challenges could trigger a renewal of American assertiveness.”  In any case, he says, the US continues to be “stronger and more capable of shaping the world than Europe, which never consolidated its power in a unified manner.”

The Dispensable Nation is the title of Vali Nasr’s latest book, a title that aims to draw a contrast with President Bill Clinton’s declaration, in his second inaugural address in 2007, that America is “the world’s indispensable nation”.  Nasr – who is now the Dean of the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University – served as Senior Adviser to Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, the US Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, between 2009 and 2011. In his book he argues that President Obama’s rush for the exit in the Middle East might cost the US dearly, as it creates a power vacuum that other countries, namely China, will try to fill. But for Nasr too Washington still has time to reverse course and re-engage in the larger Middle Eastern region (not necessarily with the armed force, but more importantly on the diplomatic level).

The bottom line, as seen from Afghanistan at least – where people have witnessed with their eyes the difference between the effectiveness of the US armed forces versus the tentative presence of their European counterparts, who have come with too many strings attached as a peacekeeping force – is that a new wave of isolationism on the part of the US is plausible. After all it has happened before, following WWI, Vietnam and the first Gulf War. But a long-term retreat from the world is simply impossible. “Globalization means globalized interest,” says Omar Sharifi in Kabul. “And this means you have to be engaged.”

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