Well, it is official. Thousands of American soldiers will stay on in Afghanistan after 2016. US President Barack Obama halted the troop drawdown on October 15 because "Afghan forces are still not as strong as they need to be."
This major policy U-turn means US combat forces will stay 9800 strong throughout 2016 and reduce to 5500 men by the time Obama leaves office. This was not the plan. The plan was to keep an embassy-level force behind after 2016, or around 1000 men. The Taliban seizing Kunduz briefly in September ruined this plan, or so says the White House.
Contrarian news sources, however, are pitching more sinister reasons for the about-face. They say the CIA persuaded Obama to stay camped in Afghanistan for financial reasons. The spy agency allegedly traffics Afghan heroin valued in the billions to bankroll its covert operations around the world.
Add to that Afghanistan's one trillion dollars worth of proven gas and mineral reserves and you can see why Washington insiders are keen to continue this "profit-driven resource war," says Prof Michel Chossudovsky from the Centre for Research on Globalization (CRG).
Normally, you would dismiss such talk as conspiratorial mumbo-jumbo, but the tactical futility of Obama's decision raises many questions. For one, nothing will change on the ground. This is not a surge and American forces will keep to their training and advisory role. Of course, if 9800 American soldiers could not prevent Kunduz from falling in September, how will they fare any better next time?
Also, there is no way Obama is a happy camper right now. By letting the Afghan war drag on beyond 2016, Obama has broken a cardinal promise to American voters and made defending the White House harder for Democrats in the next election. The once again open-ended nature of US military presence in Afghanistan further suggests he sees little chance of a quick wrap.
Furthermore, the timing is most curious since Obama staunchly defended his Afghan exit plan after announcing it in May 2014. With US military advisors and Republicans opposed from the get-go, afraid that Afghanistan would become another Iraq, the president insisted America had to "turn the page" on overseas wars. So, what has changed? Russia, and possibly by association, Pakistan.
In Syria, Russian President Vladimir Putin has expertly reminded the world of his country's military and diplomatic heft and parried attention from the Ukraine conflict. By proposing an inclusive coalition to fight the Islamic State (IS), instead of debating the merits of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's rule, Putin has presented himself as the reasonable adult in contrast to Obama's permanent sulk.
He wants to make NATO's European partners second guess themselves on Syria and underlined this in his recent UN speech. If everyone focused on IS, Putin hinted, "Then, dear friends, there would be no need for setting up more refugee camps." With the migrant crisis escalating in Europe, Putin hopes his realism will win over US allies buckling under the deluge of incoming refugees.
Obama, for his part, strongly disapproves of Russian airstrikes in Syria, saying they "only strengthen ISIL," but more worryingly, target the US-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighting Assad. Of course, saving the Syrian regime was part of Putin's plan, but Washington is mostly to blame for the current quagmire by arming Syrian "moderate" rebels that didn't really exist.
Keeping up appearances, hence, is now mandatory for Obama in the Middle East. The US special-ops mission to extract Iraqi IS hostages facing "imminent mass execution" was plainly for Putin's benefit, since Washington has been loathe to mount similar operations in the past, even when US citizens were involved.
Then, there is Pakistan. By pausing the drawdown, it seems Obama has given up on this longtime US ally being willing or able to close the Taliban insurgency, or underwrite Afghan democracy after America's exit. Meanwhile, Pakistan warms to Putin's overtures of friendship as it tires of "do more" diktats from Washington, Obama's love affair with India and the steady stream of terror accusations coming from Kabul.
Since June 2014, Russia has lifted its arms embargo on Pakistan, signed a bilateral defense agreement and will now build a 1100 KM gas pipeline from Lahore to Karachi. Both countries also converge in their desire to tap into China's endless money supply and the economic windfall from its trans-Eurasian "One Belt, One Road" project.
A telling indicator of Pakistan's foreign policy shift came from Defense Minister Khawaja Asif on October 11, when he supported Russia's military intervention in Syria, saying, "I think they are augmenting efforts against the terrorists." Such a statement would have been heresy right through the Asif Zardari years.
Washington, though, quickly returned the favor by blaming Pakistan's military intelligence for the Kunduz hospital bombing in early October. The Associated Press on October 15 quoted unnamed analysts claiming US planes bombed the hospital because "it was being used by a Pakistani operative to coordinate Taliban activity."
Unsurprisingly, then, the joint statement issued after the recent Obama-Sharif summit is laden with diplomatic jargon. It is part mutual admiration society, part old cliches and promises of cooperation and support. Keeping tabs on Pakistan is crucial for the US, however, because it may not want to, or be able to, do much good in Afghanistan but it can certainly hasten the slide.
For this reason alone, it is unlikely that Washington will cut off military aid to Pakistan even as the Coalition Support Fund (CSF) ends in 2015. The key test of US policy lens will be the F-16 fighter jets sale. If the US Congress green lights this in the next six months, then America still sees Pakistan in its corner and not swayed by Putin's carrots, helicopters or warplanes.
In truth, Obama and the Democrats cannot afford for America to leave a vacuum in Afghanistan that Putin could look to fill with Pakistan's help, thereby reversing the sacrifices of over 2000 US soldiers. That would be political suicide.