Interview with Retired U.S. Army colonel Lawrence Sellin
He is a retired American Colonel, a war veteran of Afghanistan, Iraq and a mission to West Africa. He is also an expert of Kurdish and Arabic languages. He has a keen interest in the AfPak region and is also a harsh critic of the lenient USA policy towards Pakistan and China.
Sangar Media Group took the opportunity to hold an interview with Retired USA Army Colonel Lawrence Sellin. We are thankful to Mr. Sellin for taking his time out for this interview.
Q1. The US has begun to withdraw from Afghanistan. What USA has achieved in the nearly two decades spent in Pak-Afghan region?
After an initial victory deposing the Taliban regime, attempting to rebuild the country and establish democratic institutions, Afghanistan is on the verge of becoming a major strategic defeat for the United States. We were unwilling to take the fight to the real enemy, Pakistan, without whom the Taliban would never have reemerged and the al Qaeda leadership would not have survived.
Q2. Despite the temporary setbacks received by Islamic radicals in Afghanistan, there has been an explosion of Islamic radicalism in Pakistan partly at the expense of the US taxpayers who generously funded Rawalpindi. What are the international implications of the hasty US pullout from AfPak?
I have little doubt that Pakistan has encouraged the Taliban to step up attacks on Afghanistan to increase pressure on the Kabul government to seek alternatives and to hasten the withdrawal of Western forces. President Trump’s announcement of a drawdown of half of the 14,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan has triggered a flurry of diplomatic activity, fronted by Pakistan, joined by Russia and Iran, but orchestrated by China. Their immediate goal is the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces from Afghanistan followed by a precipitous reduction of U.S. influence in South Asia.
A hasty U.S. pullout will flood Afghanistan with Taliban from sanctuaries in Pakistan. The current government in Kabul will fall within months, if not sooner. Unless immediate steps are taken to prevent it, some type of bloody civil war could ensue, then followed by international intervention by the same regional powers that collaborated to remove U.S. forces from Afghanistan and, again, led by China and Pakistan. A coalition government will likely be initially formed that is subservient to China and Pakistan. The Taliban will eventually be eased out on the insistence of the Chinese, who fear Islamic militancy spreading to China and inhibiting China’s plan to incorporate Afghanistan into the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and other Beijing-led diplomatic and military organizations. Nevertheless, the turmoil will fester due to national, ethnic and religious conflicts inherent in the region. Those will have a significant impact on any potential outcome.
Q3. The US has turned off the tap, but its closest allies in the region Saudi Arabia and the UAE are bailing out Pakistan. Does this mean that the US is left with no leverage in Pakistan?
Pakistan is an ally of China and has never been a friend of the United States, only a useful source of financial support, which has provided only a modest amount of leverage. Withdrawal of U.S. financial support was never enough to stop Pakistan from supporting the Taliban in its proxy war against Afghanistan.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE have recently propped up Pakistan’s crumbing economy by infusing billions of dollars. The Saudis and the Emiratis see their investment as a reward for Pakistan bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table and as insurance against Iran. They will be disappointed on both counts.
Q4. Similarly, the US might have scaled down military support to Pakistan, but the latter can now count upon China and, possibly, even Russia. How will the US deal with Pakistan when its friends and foes alike are flocking to Pakistan?
American carrots did not work with Pakistan. The U.S. has only sticks left to use against Pakistan. It's most significant pain points are the economy and ethnic separatism.
Q5. Balochistan is crucial for stabilising Afghanistan. But AfPak is no longer a priority for the US. What interest, if any, does the U.S. have in Balochistan?
Balochistan is strategic because of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which is the flagship of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Chinese military facilities, in particular, naval bases on the Balochistan coast are key to China’s plan to control the vital sea lanes in the Arabian Sea and access to the Persian Gulf. It is the link connecting Chinese military bases in the South China Sea and its Djibouti base at the mouth of the Red Sea and the entrance to the Suez Canal, all of which are important to Chinese domination of South Asia and isolating India.
Q6. Do you think the dream of a free Balochistan is compatible with the US-led world order?
Yes. An independent and secular Balochistan could prevent Afghanistan from becoming a puppet state of China and Pakistan, thwart Chinese hegemony in South Asia, undermine the terrorist-sponsoring regime in Iran and drive a stake into the heart of radical Islam.
Q7. The radicalization and militarization of the Baloch society has happened on the United States’ watch. The US intelligence agencies have until recently worked very closely with their Pakistani counterparts. It is safe to assume that they are fully aware of the unlawful detention and torture of Baloch nationalists and the use of Islamic radicals, drugs and the army to suppress our people. Does the US and its European allies have a moral obligation to stop the state-sponsored genocide of the Baloch people?
The human rights violations occurring in Balochistan are tragic, but as important as they are, nations are primarily driven by strategic interests rather than moral obligations. Pakistan is an artificial state cobbled together after the partition of British India by joining together ethic regions that never substantially interacted. Pakistan is the Yugoslavia of South Asia. Its existence depends upon stamping out ethnic self-determination. That policy is unsustainable and self-defeating.
Q8. Supporting the Baloch means openly opposing Pakistan, a rogue nuclear power presently in the good books of an equally rogue permanent member of the Security Council. Can the US change half a century old policy? Can the US afford to support the Baloch and open a new front in its ongoing cold war with China?
Opposing Chinese domination is not the only issue confronting the United States in South Asia. There is Iran, the future of Afghanistan, the growing extremism in Pakistan, the isolation of India, to all of them the Baloch could contribute.
Q 9. As someone who has seen conflict for a long time including in Afghanistan where Pakistan is involved what advice do you have, if any, for our struggle for independence from Pakistan?
The struggle for independence is a marathon not a sprint. The Baloch need to maintain their ethnic identity, their language and culture and resist oppression when possible. The case will be made for Balochistan independence by focusing on its strategic importance. Human rights are also important, but the world suffers from “compassion fatigue,“ overwhelmed by too many human rights violations occurring in too many places at the same time. It is tragic, but, unfortunately, it is the reality.
Q10. Soon after the US decides to withdraw Pakistan feels emboldened to strike in Afghanistan. Do you think volatility on the Baloch front WILL draw the US once again into the region?
I think Balochistan is a strategic center of gravity. Volatility will draw significant attention, which the U.S. cannot and should not ignore.