2012-01-05 (China Military News cited from csmonitor.com and by Alexander Benard) — As 2011 drew to a close, so did US military involvement in Iraq. Amid domestic pressure, Iraqi opposition to an American military presence, and a breakdown in negotiations between the US and Iraqi governments, the Obama administration withdrew all of its military forces from Iraq, and will soon face a similar decision in Afghanistan.
Though Afghanistan has requested a long-term security commitment, President Obama will likely encounter opposition from his political base as well as thorny issues like how to handle night raids and Afghan prisoners held by US troops. But as his administration continues its negotiations with the Afghan government, it must recognize that a total withdrawal would have effects beyond Afghanistan’s borders. Simply put, it would devastate US interests – both geopolitical and commercial – throughout Central Asia.Central Asia is a hugely significant region for the United States. It sits at the crossroads of important rivals and rising powers, like China, Russia, and India, and next to threats like Pakistan and Iran. The region also boasts significant oil and gas reserves, as well as large quantities of lithium, copper, rare earth minerals, gold, and many other natural resources that are critical drivers to global commerce.
Yet most of Central Asia has very little US presence. Few US companies operate in the region, largely because the Russian and Chinese governments successfully use threats – both explicit and implicit – to prevent Central Asian republics from opening their doors to Western firms.
In the Middle East, the US has troops and security relationships with a variety of countries (Qatar, Bahrain, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates, among others) and can thus absorb the Iraq pullout without sustaining too much of a strategic blow to our regional interests. In Central Asia, however, America’s footprint is very light. It no longer has an air base in Uzbekistan and has only a few hundred troops at an air base Kyrgyzstan.
That leaves Afghanistan as America’s only beachhead – and a willing participant at that – altering the power dynamics in the region. The US certainly derives valuable intelligence and counter-terrorism benefits from having troops stationed in a country that borders Iran, Pakistan, and China. Even more important, however, a US presence in Afghanistan signals that the US is serious about Central Asia and that it will be a player there for the foreseeable future.
Having an American presence in Afghanistan breaks the China-Russia duopoly by providing an alternative power broker for the region. It thereby emboldens other countries in the area, giving them the confidence they need to stand up to their neighborhood bullies. An ongoing presence of around 20,000 to 30,000 US troops – similar in size to the number of troops in South Korea or in Japan – would be sufficient to accomplish these goals.