In an 1,856-word editorial in its October 13 issue, the New York Times has declared that Afghanistan is not a war of necessity and “it is time for United States forces to leave Afghanistan [because]... the United States will not achieve even President Obama’s narrowing goals, and prolonging the war will only do more harm.”
It is good to know that the mainstream media outlets in the US are coming around to appreciating the situation rather than continuing to situate the appreciation.
Back in December 2009, President Barack Obama had spoken at West Point, outlining his Afghanistan policy after a major review process. He talked about his “overarching” goal of making efforts “to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and to prevent its capacity to threaten America and our allies in the future”.
His policy: pursue a military strategy that will break the Taliban’s momentum and increase Afghanistan’s capacity over the next 18 months — i.e., additional troops; work with partners, the United Nations and the Afghan people to pursue a more effective civilian strategy, so that the government can take advantage of improved security; act with the full recognition that US success in Afghanistan is inextricably linked to its partnership with Pakistan. This relates to strategically partnering Pakistan, with emphasis both on the civilian and military side of it.
In sum, as President Obama put it, “These are the three core elements of our strategy: a military effort to create the conditions for a transition; a civilian surge that reinforces positive action; and an effective partnership with Pakistan”.
President Obama failed in achieving all these objectives. The military effort, despite operations in Helmand and Kandahar, as well as night raids, tactically effective, did not add any significant strategic value to the US policy because it could not, in and of itself, improve governance. Governance never improved for a host of reasons that range from institutional problems to corruption in Afghanistan and the UN system to structural and security problems to confusion over how to design such interventions, etc.
The foreign governments involved with and in the larger US project in Afghanistan failed to understand that the central government in Kabul always had a very tenuous relationship with the Afghan countryside inhabited by multiple solidarity groups. Kabul dealt with them through negotiations whose rules were honed over scores. Those rules constrained space for both sides, for the central government as well as the tribes. This is a system that can be changed only from within. The Soviets sent troops to help the communists reengineer Afghanistan. The project failed. The free world’s project had a better chance at success if the Americans did not spurn Taliban overtures in 2004 to negotiate a safe return but that is one of history’s if-onlys.
Most analysts believe a US withdrawal without stabilising Afghanistan will plunge the country into a civil war. There are three problems with this argument: one, the US presence itself is contributing to instability; two, the US is in no position to stabilise Afghanistan; three, whether the US leaves in a year, two years or five, Afghanistan will see another round of civil war. The longer the US stays the greater the intensity of the next round.
Interestingly, while the NYT supports full withdrawal, the Obama Administration wants to retain American troops — 15,000-20,000 — on five bases in Afghanistan. That hasn’t happened so far but highly-placed Afghan sources concede the pressure is immense and Kabul might have to give at least three bases, two to the US military and one, nominally, to Nato.
The Pashtuns in the Karzai government are not too enamoured of this but Kabul’s broader ruling clique has many elements that do not want the US to leave and a minority remains completely opposed to any dialogue with the Taliban. These elements want the US to retain military presence and they also want the monies to keep coming in. Afghanistan’s civil society and its women, mostly urban based, are also either opposed to, or greatly afraid of, a scenario in which the Taliban can make a full or partial return.
President Hamid Karzai realises that the Taliban cannot be defeated. He wants a quick reconciliation with them and wants Islamabad to facilitate the process. Islamabad wants to help Kabul but is also wary of President Karzai’s mood swings. The Afghan president continues to oscillate between the two extremes of calling Pakistan a special friend and declaring it an adversary, much to the chagrin even of those Afghan officials who are supposed to work with Pakistan at multiple levels and who, it must be said, have done much good work over the past year.
For Pakistan, the situation throws up many challenges. An unstable Afghanistan doesn’t help Pakistan fight its war in Fata, a war it has to fight and conclude by destroying the terrorist groups that are attacking Pakistan.
The US failure in Afghanistan means Pakistan has to deal with the Afghan Taliban and ensure, in collaboration with Kabul, to pull them into the political process and make them contest for the control of Afghanistan through constitutional-political means rather than through force of arms.
To this end, Pakistan will have to work closely with Afghanistan and fast-track negotiations with the Taliban. The two envoys in Kabul and Islamabad, Ambassadors Muhammad Sadiq of Pakistan and Mohammad Umer Daudzai of Afghanistan, are arguably best suited to help the two sides come together meaningfully. This assessment is not a hope but based on work done by them over the past year.
The situation has its own urgency for Pakistan quite apart from what the American endgame might be. We have our own war to fight and conclude in Fata and other parts of Pakistan. That fight is not just over territory but also opposing ideologies and value systems. Pakistan needs a stable Afghanistan in order to be able to fight its internal war.
Pakistan’s current policy of normalising relations with all the neighbours and beyond is not just good foreign policy but is also incredibly important for addressing its internal threat.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 17th, 2012.