Finding an Exit from the Afghan Trap
It is widely accepted that the war in Afghanistan could make or break Barack Obama’s presidency. Failure would almost certainly rob him of the chance of a second term. With the situation on the ground deteriorating, casualties rising and the war increasingly unpopular, the U.S. President faces an agonizing decision.
Astonishingly, the current debate in Washington is almost entirely military, only rarely political. Focusing on troop numbers and military strategy, it has failed to give any serious attention to the possibility of bringing the Afghan war to an end by political means.
The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McCrystal, wants an extra 40,000 troops, in support of a broad counter-insurgency strategy. He argues in favor of protecting the Afghan people by stationing Western troops among them rather than in remote bases, winning or buying over dissidents, expanding the Afghan army and police, and reforming and strengthening the Kabul government — in other words, he wants the United States to commit itself to a sustained and expensive state-building effort over many years.
Henry Kissinger has written in support of General McCrystal, as has the distinguished New York Times columnist Roger Cohen, who advocates “endurance,” rather than “exit.” In a recent article, he wrote: “In Afghanistan, 30 years of fighting now demand 30 years of partnership from the United States.” Alarmingly — and unconvincingly — he added that “If the U.S. steps back now...NATO will fold. So will Pakistan.”
Vice-President Joe Biden and other war-skeptics disagree. They argue that, rather than the thankless and uncertain task of state-building -- in a country that has never had a strong centralized state — the U.S. should pursue a counter-terrorist strategy, essentially by means of air strikes. It should focus, in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, on hunting down and destroying Al-Qaeda, and those Taliban that protect it.
Secretary of State Hilary Clinton seems to be tilting in Biden’s direction, as is John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the unsuccessful 2004 Democratic presidential candidate. Kerry wrote recently that it would be “entirely irresponsible…to commit more troops… when we don’t even have an election finished [in Afghanistan] and know who the president is.”
Senator Kerry and others like him are urging Obama to delay making a decision until a clear partner for the United States emerges in Kabul from the fraudulent mess of the election last August. That, however, may mean waiting a very long time.
Early in his presidency, Obama spoke of the need for an exit strategy from Afghanistan. He hoped then that sending in 21,000 more troops would allow him to seize the military initiative and so prepare the ground, from a position of strength, for a negotiated settlement with the Taliban. This strategy has not worked. On the contrary. The United States-NATO position is now weaker and the Taliban stronger. It is time to think again.
A necessary precondition for success would be to recognize that Afghans — and especially the great Pashtun tribes that straddle the Afghan-Pakistan border — do not like foreigners. They see the presence of foreign troops as a threat to their culture, religion and way of life. Their beliefs and traditions cannot be changed by force. Fighting terrorism is one thing, arousing the hate of the Afghan population, such as the United States and NATO are now doing, is quite another. It is an outcome that should be avoided at all cost.
Instead, this article argues that the United States should consider administering a strong dose of political ‘shock therapy’. It should rally its friends and allies — and even its opponents — in a bold attempt at a political settlement. This, of course, must rule out sending in any more troops.
How could such a settlement be arrived at? Two simultaneous political initiatives could break the log-jam.
- The first should be an immediate and vigorous United States-UN effort to broker a settlement over Kashmir — and if not a settlement then at least a reasonably amicable arrangement which India, Pakistan and the Kashmiris could live with.
The United States should use its full diplomatic clout to bring this about because Kashmir weighs heavily on the situation in Afghanistan. So long as the Kashmir conflict remains unresolved, the Pakistani military and intelligence services will think that they need jihadi allies to pin down a sizable chunk of the Indian army in Kashmir and to keep Indian influence at bay in Afghanistan, a country Pakistan considers its strategic depth.
- The second U.S. initiative should be to establish a contact group of Pakistan, India, Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia tasked with summoning a loya jirga, or grand tribal council, in which all sides of the Afghan conflict -- President Hamid Karzai, his Taliban and other opponents, as well as regional and tribal dignitaries -- would be represented.
This loya jirga would call an immediate ceasefire and arrange for a truce of several months to allow political negotiations to proceed. The aim of these negotiations should be to rewrite the Afghan Constitution, to agree to a new form of decentralized administration more suited for a country with profound regional and ethnic divisions, and to form a national unity government.Another major objective, which could be secured in the wings of the tribal council, would be to persuade the Pashtun tribes that it is time to end their protection of the hard core al-Qaeda fighters and plotters still in their midst.
The United States and its NATO allies would contribute to the success of the loya jirga by pledging a full withdrawal of their troops once the Afghan unity government is formed, as well as development aid of many billions of dollars a year over at least fifteen years, for electricity, clean water, health, education, infrastructural projects and so forth, to be administered by UN agencies. Nothing less would be adequate compensation for the ravages of war.
Could such a plan work? It would certainly be worth trying.
It must be assumed that the Afghans are at least as fed up with the war as are the Americans, the British, the French, and the other nations contributing troops to the war — indeed far more so since they are on the receiving end of death and destruction on a daily basis. All but a small minority of extremists would certainly welcome a peaceful settlement.
The approaching winter is the ideal time to attempt to reach such an Afghan political settlement. By putting a curb on war fighting, the bad weather will give all sides time to reflect on how to climb out of the Afghan trap with honor intact.
Patrick Seale is a leading British writer on the Middle East, and the author of The Struggle for Syria; also, Asad of Syria: The Struggle for the Middle East; and Abu Nidal: A Gun for Hire.
Copyright © 2009 Patrick Seale – distributed by Agence Global
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