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It's Time To Get Out Of Afghanistan, Analyst Robert Kaplan Says


Last week came word that U.S. Army Chief of Staff Mark Milley had made a surprise trip to Kabul to meet with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. Milley is President Trump's choice to be the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The visit comes after the announcement in December that President Trump wants to cut U.S. troops in Afghanistan by half, from about 14,000 down to 7,000. Veteran foreign policy analyst Robert Kaplan this week wrote a New York Times op-ed provocatively titled "Time To Get Out Of Afghanistan." Kaplan spoke with Noel King.

NOEL KING, BYLINE: What exactly are you arguing here?

ROBERT KAPLAN: What I'm arguing is a number of things. We've been in Afghanistan for 17 years. What we've learned over the years in two decades is the American military can do a lot of wonderful things. But one thing it can not do is fix complex Islamic societies on the ground. And what I'm arguing is that there's really no possibility of a decisive victory over the Taliban after 17 years.

KING: Do you think there's a realistic scenario by which Afghanistan's democratically elected central government survives if the U.S. withdraws totally?

KAPLAN: I'm having trouble seeing it, frankly. The best-case, realist scenario is a kind of coalition regime between the Taliban and the democratic government that allows various warlord and tribal factions throughout the country to essentially govern on their own.

Remember, from the 1950s to the early 1970s when Afghanistan was relatively stable, even then the king in Kabul, who left in 1973, and the subsequent governments in Kabul did not govern the hinterlands. They essentially governed what's called the ring road, connecting the major cities in the country - Mazar-i-Sharif in the north, Herat in the West, Kandahar in the south and of course Kabul in the east and Jalalabad in the east.

KING: You are saying that there will be some pain in Afghanistan if the U.S. withdraws. The government will fall apart.

KAPLAN: It might fall apart. It very well might. But I believe it might fall apart whether we're there for another nine months or another five years. We've given this 17 years. As I wrote in my piece, we made big mistakes along the way. It did not have to turn out this way. No place is hopeless, but here is where we are now.

KING: People who want us to stay in Afghanistan, similarly to people who are upset about the pullout of U.S. troops in Syria, say, you know, the U.S. is assuming a different role in the world if it does these things; it is no longer a superpower; it is no longer a leading force; it'll be replaced by Russia; it'll be replaced by China; it'll be replaced by Iran. What do you think about that? Are you arguing fundamentally for the United States to see itself as or to play a different role in the world?

KAPLAN: No, I disagree with that point of view. I believe precisely for the United States to challenge China throughout Eurasia in the Indian Ocean, for the United States to stand up to Russia in the Baltic Sea - the Black Sea in Europe. It is necessary for the United States to find a responsible way to get its significant number of ground forces out of the Middle East and to deal with the Middle East through air and naval and cyber assets because ground troops are not like naval or air forces. They're in a place. They're susceptible to quagmire. They eat up large amounts of resources in Afghanistan. It's over $40 billion a year.

I don't know what the figure is in Syria, and we could better spend that money building dual-use ports, LNG facilities in Vietnam and Malaysia and the Philippines to compete with China's Belt and Road project, both maritime and on land. We've got to make some choices. We've got to pick some losers. And eventually, if the United States is going to peacefully compete with China for influence throughout Eurasia, it's going to have to deal with the Middle East in a far more economical way.

KING: You wrote something interesting in your op-ed. You wrote, (reading) the Chinese, Pakistanis, Russians, Indians and Iranians, meanwhile, may all be benefiting more from America's military operations in Afghanistan than the United States is.

KAPLAN: Yeah. Let me unpack this. The Chinese and the Pakistanis are spending $45 billion as we speak - 46 billion to build roads, railways and pipelines from Western China south through Pakistan all the way to the Indian Ocean port at Qatar. Meanwhile, the Indians and the Iranians are starting to build another pathway of roads, railway and pipelines from Central Asia south to the Iranian port of Chabahar.

So it's two competing pipelines and roads being built. One to the east of Afghanistan, one to the west, both eventually with spur lines that will connect into Afghanistan. And precisely because the U.S. ground presence and air presence - there may be just enough stability in Afghanistan to let these projects get started.

So in effect, indirectly, the United States' presence in Afghanistan is aiding the building of China's Belt and Road Initiative and Iran and India's competing initiative.

KING: You're not arguing that the United States should leave Afghanistan so that China and Iran's economic plans will end up a mess?

KAPLAN: Absolutely not. I'm not arguing that. All I'm saying is that our continued presence is helping them. So unless we see an end to the tunnel, a stable democracy that we can leave behind or even a stable enlightened authoritarian regime that we could leave behind, like something we have in Oman or Morocco or Jordan - unless we can see some light at the end of the tunnel, then, you know, the mission, given that it costs $45 billion a year, is becoming pointless.

KING: Robert D. Kaplan is a veteran foreign policy analyst and author. He's a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and a senior adviser at the Eurasia Group. Thank you, sir.

KAPLAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.