Anatol Lieven explains why the US won’t really withdraw from Afghanistan

Published: March 21, 2013
He also sheds light on the presence of Taliban in the region .

He also sheds light on the presence of Taliban in the region .

KARACHI: Eminent author and journalist Anatol Lieven summarised how the much-anticipated United States withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014 would actually play out during a talk at the Oxford University Press office on Wednesday.

“The US is not withdrawing from Afghanistan and 2014 is not really a cutoff date,” was the emphatic announcement with which Lieven began the 45-minute-long talk. “The US continues to feel threatened by Taliban because of which it will continue to retain bases and military advisors for the Afghan government. However, they have learnt to accept what is happening on the ground in Afghanistan as they were responsible for choosing the country’s administration.”

Without beating around the bush, Lieven summed up the main reason preventing the US from making a clean exit from Afghanistan – “America does not have an exit strategy.

They haven’t formulated any plan about how they will handle the next year’s presidential elections in Afghanistan either.” Lieven explained that at times, people express the fear of a civil war breaking out in Afghanistan if the Americans left. “What do you think is happening right now,” he asked. “Afghanistan has been in a state of civil war since long before the Soviets withdrew from it.”

According to Lieven, the Taliban will not win the upcoming elections. “The different factions in Afghanistan will enter into temporary truces and armistices to prevent the Taliban from forming a government in Kabul,” he explained. “And sensible Pakistani officials know that a Taliban government would be bad for Pakistan.”

Theories and predictions

He stressed that India and Pakistan also needed to come to terms with the fact that both nations will not have much say in the set up of the Afghan government. “There is deep mistrust and misinformation between Pakistan and India as both believe that the Taliban in their countries are being supported by each other’s government.”

While recalling a student he met in Delhi who was convinced that Gwadar was a Chinese military base, he explained that Indians feared “being encircled by Pakistan.”

Lieven also recalled discussing the change in government in Afghanistan with some “relatively pragmatic Taliban” he met in 2012. “They admitted that they couldn’t hope to conquer and hold the country,” he explained. “In addition to realising that Afghanistan cannot have a government run only by clerics, they also discussed the need to create some space for technocrats to be brought in to build the country.” The journalist told the audience that even the group he met refused to give up arms or concede to not having a guarantee of their share in the government.

Although Lieven agreed that America’s fears of being invaded by Iran and North Korea were largely imagined, he quoted incidents of recent terrorist plots nabbed by its government to emphasise that not all was paranoia. “If there is a terrorist attack on the US, I fear that the Americans might lose their head and do something stupid.”

Every now and then, a question from the audience would result in a detour in the conversation. At one point, a somewhat tickled Lieven felt that he must explain why talk of the British government crafting a ‘containment policy’ towards Pakistan was not to be taken seriously. “If Britain was to contain Pakistan, it will have to undertake the impossible task of cordoning  Bradford and Leeds from the rest of country.”

Published in The Express Tribune, March 21st, 2013.

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Reader Comments (14)

  • Falcon
    Mar 21, 2013 - 3:32AM

    Very interesting and insightful. A true scholar I must say. His book on Pakistan is one of the best texts I have ever seen written on the subject.


  • Hammad
    Mar 21, 2013 - 5:49AM

    So he based his whole claim about Indians fearing encirclement by Pakistan based on a single comment from a student? He also claimed in his book that Zia did not have a lasting impact on the country based on a single army official’s view. Not very scholarly, I must say.


  • Falcon
    Mar 21, 2013 - 6:44AM

    I agree that a view of a student is not enough to make a conclusion like that. But if you have read his book, you will notice he is more of a story teller and triangulates his point of view using multiple data points (including human perceptions of an issue). Secondly, based on Siachen debate as well as recent concerns raised by India over Chinese infrastructure work in Kashmir, it is noticeable that Indian establishment might not perceive Pakistan to be a major threat but does fear that it can be used by China as a front-line state against India. Lastly, your argument about Zia, I remember he has provided more details in the book to substantiate his point of view rather than just a single person’s interview.


  • Another North Indian
    Mar 21, 2013 - 7:58AM

    Pakistanis are so desperate for any recognition by a foreigner that any white who says something not directly abusive of Pakistan becomes ‘an eminent international scholar’.


  • mes
    Mar 21, 2013 - 8:15AM

    Pakistan: come 2014, we will change the game, we will turn the table around.

    Anatol Lieven:

    “The US is not withdrawing from
    Afghanistan and 2014 is not really a
    cutoff date,”

    Pakistan: wait, what???this cannot be, i thought that by 2014 we will turn the tables, our economy will start to blossom again, Pakistan will again become peaceful and powerful emerging country.

    Anatol Lieven:

    “And sensible Pakistani officials
    know that a Taliban government would
    be bad for Pakistan.”


  • gp65
    Mar 21, 2013 - 10:51AM

    Not very impressed by his analysis. HEre are a few things where I differ.

    1. India fears encirclement by China not Pakistan.
    2. It is Pakistan and Afghanistan who accuse each other of harbouring the Taliban in their respective countries not Pakistan and India.
    3. US is not afraid that Iran will attack US but rather it will attack Israel. Likewise with North Korea – its concern is for its allies SOuth Korea and Japan. There is o way a missile from North Korea can possibly reach US wihou being intercepted and shot down.
    4. Containing Pakistan refers to containing the impact of Pakistan based terror oytfits on Britain. British Pakistani civilians do not fit that category, so his statement about Bradford might be interesting but does not have much analytical value
    5. HE says US will not evacuate 2014 and uses as supporting evidence all the things that the US has already said evacuation WILL NOT nvolve i.e. abandoning bases (it has those in 100 countries including Japan) or being in Afghanistan in training and consultative capacity for ANA. IT simply means that US armed forces will nto be involved in any combat roles post 2014. There is no evidence that there is any review on that score.Recommend

  • Dharamveer
    Mar 21, 2013 - 1:54PM

    Taliban in India? ???? GO HOME Journalist! You are drunk!


  • Mar 21, 2013 - 2:00PM

    They have taken out 33000 troops already!

    They are planing to retain 12k. If retaining a small force, which will not do combat operations is not going out of Afghanistan, then US forces are present in Japan, Saudi Arabia and South Korea.

    They will have the best of both worlds. They will have zero dependency on Pakistan, no more casualties and no spending Billions.

    The rest is tricky to predict. Taliban might or might not come. Either way Pakistan is definitely the loser, either through International Isolation or spread of extremism.


  • David_Smith
    Mar 21, 2013 - 3:35PM

    He probably meant encirclement by China.


  • Bharat
    Mar 21, 2013 - 3:41PM

    “There is deep mistrust and misinformation between Pakistan and India as both believe that the Taliban in their countries are being supported by each other’s government.”
    What? Taliban in India? Taliban is present in Pakistan and Afghanistan, not IndiaRecommend

  • Falcon
    Mar 21, 2013 - 7:08PM

    Point by point response:
    1. You are right. That’s most likely what he meant as well.
    2. He appears to be using the term Taliban for all religious militants
    3. U.S. fear with regards Iran go beyond Israel. That’s why as per a report received recently about the long-term risks, Iran and China were sighted as America’s long-term threats. It has more to do with Middle Eastern dynamics and energy security than just the issue of Israel. That is why U.S. is attempting to isolate Iran in the region through countries such as KSA.
    4. I don’t know enough about the issue to speak but I do remember him making extensive observations about Pakistani community in Britain in his book. So, there might be some operative assumptions that he has not explicated.
    5. If I remember correctly, there also a talk of increasing intelligence footprint. But the essential point that matters is that whether U.S. wants to maintain physical presence in the region because of its strategic value rather than just for the sake of managing Afghanistan.


  • Abdul Jabbar Mohmand
    Mar 21, 2013 - 9:47PM

    @Another North Indian: Mate, he is a chairman of international relations at Kings College London. I guess you dont know where kings college london is. Go and get some sleep


  • gp65
    Mar 21, 2013 - 10:57PM

    @Falcon: Thanks for responding. I appreciate a fact based discussion with you compared to the name calling that some other people indulge in. HEre are my 2 cents:

    1) If he used the word Taliban for all religious extremists then that is very sloppy on his part – especially since he has written a book on Pakistan and visists regularly so is familiar with the players. I am also not aware that there have been any accusations that India actually provides safe havens to terror groups operataing in Pakistan. The worst accusation that has been made by any official (Zaid Hamid does not count) is that India is funding BLA – an accusation for which no proof has been provided by anyone i Pakistan to anyone in US or any international fora. Pakstan on the other hand while denying any involvement, has officially banned LeT and jeM, so it does implicitly acknowledge that both these organizations are terrorist organizations. ALso, there ae voice records, testimony of Kasab and David Headley in court and testimony of Abu Jundal that supports India’s case that there is some connection between ISI and LeT (at least at an individual level if not an institutional level). So the author’s attempt to establish a false equivalence in the allegations is also not very scholarly in my opiion.

    2) Even if USA has broader concerns about Iran than I inidicated, I do not think the broader concerns are what the author stated i.e. fear that Iran could actually attack USA. There is no way a misile from IRan could reach US witout being intercepted and destroyed.


  • Rex Minor
    Mar 27, 2013 - 7:02AM

    The neocon Lieven can talk and shout, can dance and wish, and keep blowing in space, and hope to prolon the USA stay in Afghanistan to keep pressure on Iran, who the neocons reckon threatens the security of Israel.
    The USA is broke, its militry defeated in Afghanistan, which is now confined to protected cantonments. It is the logistics which has delayed their immediate exit.–the removal of the lethal equipment from the war front carries the risk of the repeat of vietnam debacle. The situation has eased now since Pakistan Govt. has agreed to let them use the Khyber-Karachi highway so that they are able to use the sea route..
    The achilles heal of the Super power is the pacific; NKorea is threatning to strike the mainland, Chuck Hagel priority is for home security. No more cry of democracy and footprints in foreign lands, but “‘Regime Change” with covet operations and drones to replace marines and seals, under Pantagon control.

    Rex Minor


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