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The United States and NATO in Afghanistan — An Asian Viewpoint

As hard power from the West has failed in Asia, what are the options for a new and different U.S. policy toward the region?

May 13, 2013

Kandahar, March 2013. Credit: PJF -

Recent events in the American occupation of Afghanistan including the death of a U.S. diplomat, a drone strike near the Pakistan border which killed 18 people, including women and children and a looming 2014 deadline for cessation of American combat operations in the country have highlighted the futility of the longest war in America’s history.

On the home front Senator Rand Paul’s filibuster over the use of drone strikes and the Boston marathon bombing, which may have been motivated by America’s “War on Terror,” had a similar effect.

U.S. commentators have started to revisit the words of former Defense Secretary Robert Gates that “any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should ‘have his head examined.'”

The irony is that Gates was himself quoting an earlier warning by Douglas MacArthur, issued over 60 years earlier on the eve of the Korean War. Small wonder that Gore Vidal dubbed America the United States of Amnesia.

Apart from India and Pakistan (whose motives are suspect), the United States and its NATO allies have consistently failed to consult experts from the region.

This is particularly galling given that leaders such as Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan are far better respected in the Muslim world than any American official and therefore in a far better position to broker a lasting settlement.

This is not just a Bush Administration policy. In 2010, President Obama did not consult any Asian leaders before deciding on sending in more troops.

Given the region’s history, Asians are very skeptical about occupying armies from the West. The attempts of Western governments to portray their actions as noble are far from persuasive to those with knowledge of their colonial pasts.

This is despite the fact that most Asians have little love for the extreme ideologies of the West’s enemies in the region.

Asians are not easily duped by the blatant oversimplification of whole nations into “good and bad guys.”

The portrayal of everyone, Afghan or otherwise, as terrorists simply because they are unwilling to accept occupation is incorrect and immoral.

Even if one accepts that there is a core of fighters who represent the Taliban, it is intellectually dishonest and naive not to accept that oppressed people fight invaders.

It is very likely that many have picked up arms in the tradition of resistance to a foreign army.

Asians see the hypocrisy that what was once celebrated and actively supported by America in the 1980s, when the local populace took up arms against the Soviet Union, is now condemned as terrorism.

Asians have found themselves unwilling to accept the version of current events that has been packaged by the Western media and politicians. And they have access to a far more balanced view from regional news sources.

It was only in 2009, for instance, 9 years after the invasion of Afghanistan, that the American government lifted its ban on American media displaying images of the war dead.

They are also not going to be duped, as they were during the war in Vietnam, which portrayed the Vietcong as bloodthirsty commies and goons.

While Asians appreciate the dangers of allowing any nation to become a failed state, they do not believe that the solution is military intervention by the West.

They are in fact very aware of the cultural ignorance of foreign forces, often young men who have been trained to kill and little else, in a Muslim country preaching democracy and human rights.

U.S. politicians need to understand that it is not only Muslims who do not agree with a foreign policy approach that harks back to the 19th century.

Asians might abhor Taliban extremism, but they do not support a misguided invasion that has cost hundreds of thousands of lives and caused untold damage.

They have little faith in Western armies operating in Asia and officially espousing good intentions. The record of western politicians refusing to accept responsibility for creating another quagmire is too long and remains too fresh.

Asians also do not fear the Taliban marching across the region and spreading their beliefs. While Islamic fundamentalism has support in certain quarters, most Asians believe this is containable through dialogue.

So what should the US do now?

First, it should understand that the U.S. army needs to withdraw as quickly as possible. A “white man’s army” in a Muslim nation is a magnet for violence, and can never create a lasting peace.

Their effect is rather to destabilize the region, only increasing the violence they purport to stop.

As Anatol Lieven pointed out in 2011, “U.S. and British soldiers are in effect dying in Afghanistan in order to make the world more dangerous for American and British peoples.”

This should include the cessation of the drone attacks that have killed hundreds of innocent civilians, including women and children. At present, the Pentagon’s plan is to continue these strikes even after the 2014 withdrawal of American troops.

The United States and NATO should therefore throw their support behind a truly radical strategy for peace that seeks to work with all Afghans, including the Taliban and its neighbors. No preconditions — and not led by the West.

NATO should start working with key Asian and Muslim countries on the details of a unique peace treaty to be signed with the Taliban leadership and the current Afghan government.

This should include a partnership between the Taliban, the government and other key players, but will require the Afghans to implement it in their own way even if it will be chaotic.

At the very least, there is comfort to be had in the fact that things cannot get any worse.

The groundbreaking peace treaty and strategy would include the following elements:

  An immediate ceasefire with all foreign forces leaving the country within six months and a complete cessation of drone strikes.
  The creation of a new international peace alliance that includes Afghanistan’s key neighbors such as Iran, China, Pakistan and India, but not led by any Western power — perhaps led by Turkey and chaired by a global figure such as Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan or Indonesian President Yudhoyono.
  This alliance will lead a truly international effort to assist the country over a ten-year period. Money should not be an issue.
  Invite companies from Korea, Japan, Singapore, Malaysia, Iran, Pakistan, India, Turkey, Middle East, Brazil and even South Africa to take on the major contracts. Ensure contractually that the vast majority employed are locals or returnees.
  Afghans will provide security for the reconstruction projects, based on the current government and the Taliban coming to an agreement on how.
  The absence of foreign forces will necessitate a new system for domestic security in the country, which will no doubt have its challenges. The goodwill that is achieved by the exit of U.S. troops, however, will more than make up for this.
  Make sure the projects are what the Afghans need — rather than what Western development experts think they should have. Investments will then follow from around the region.
  Work to the strengths of the people rather than their weaknesses. Use diplomacy that leverages the people of Afghanistan’s legendary hospitality and their local code of honor.
  As a symbol of the peace treaty, start by building in every tribal heartland a center of Islamic studies, culture and art. It should include vocational schools and a large hospital.
  District heating systems to ease the harsh winters that make life unbearable and kill so many children each year should be a top priority, more so even than roads. These will win friends and sow the seeds for peace.

The old ways of hard power have failed, as we are witnessing yet again, and must be replaced. This requires that the United States make way for regional brokers who may have subtler and more effective diplomatic power.


Asians know the dangers of a state failing, but do not see a Western military as the solution.

While Islamic fundamentalism has some support, most Asians believe it is containable through dialogue.

A "white man's army" in a Muslim nation is a magnet for violence and never creates lasting peace.

The U.S. must make way for regional brokers who have subtler, more effective diplomatic power.

Author Gore Vidal dubbed America the "United States of Amnesia."