Preparing for Defeat in Afghanistan

Instead of internationalizing the war effort or learning from previous counterinsurgencies, the United States will abandon Afghanistan.

Australian ISAF forces on the outskirt Hindu Kush mountains near Zabul, Afghanistan, December 10, 2008
Australian ISAF forces on the outskirt Hindu Kush mountains near Zabul, Afghanistan, December 10, 2008 (Combat Camera)

Things aren’t looking pretty in Afghanistan. The Taliban are getting stronger, winning support as Hamid Karzai’s government in Kabul remains ineffective and corrupt. NATO allies are increasingly weary about the future of the Afghan mission and President Barack Obama has announced to start withdrawing American forces next year. Can the war still be won?

Writing in November of last year, retired US Army General Barry McCaffrey had some hope. Although the “Taliban believe they are winning” and the Afghan people “do not know who will prevail,” the Afghan National Army, he wrote, “is a growing success story” while “ISAF is reinforcing just in time to rescue the deteriorating tactical situation.” It may not be enough though.

In 2008, McCaffrey also warned that while NATO forces are militarily superior to the insurgents, they “cannot win through a war of attrition.” With the Taliban expecting the West to pull out next year, that is precisely what the war is turning into.

Perhaps hoping to achieve some semblance of success at nation building, the Obama Administration is reportedly considering to start negotiating with elements of the Taliban through third parties.

Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, provided the rationale for such a policy in a Newsweek article published last week. According to Haass, the “war of necessity,” which the United States had to wage against Al Qaeda in the wake of 9/11, is over. Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network, he knows, has been decimated. The chance to establish a “functional Afghan state” has passed though, after the Bush Administration refused to commit to nation building for almost eight years. Obama’s approach, to prevent the return of the Taliban altogether, is “hugely expensive” and “highly unlikely to succeed.”

Haass admits that reconciliation — “negotiating a ceasefire with those Taliban leaders willing to stop fighting in exchange for the chance to join Afghanistan’s government” — has little chance of success: “they might decide that time is on their side if they only wait and fight.” He also rejects Robert Blackwill’s proposal. The former American ambassador to India favors a de facto partition of Afghanistan, separating the relatively stable northeast, where nation building appears to be working, from the southeast, dominated by the Pashtun insurgency.

Creating an autonomous “Pashtunistan” was proposed by Thomas Barnett last year. He believes that the attempt to subsume the Pashtuns within a larger Afghanistan “is doomed to fail.” Haass sees several drawbacks however.

A self-governing “Pashtunistan” inside Afghanistan could become a threat to the integrity of Pakistan, whose own 25 million Pashtuns might seek to break free to form a larger Pashtunistan. Any partition would also be resisted by many Afghans, including those Tajik, Baluchi, and Hazara minorities living in demographic “islands” within the mostly Pashtun south, as well as the Tajiks, Uzbeks, and others elsewhere in the country who want to keep Afghanistan free of Taliban influence.

Haass suggests “decentralization” instead. “Under this approach, the United States would provide arms and training to those local Afghan leaders throughout the country who reject Al Qaeda and who do not seek to undermine Pakistan.” The advantage of this option, he believes, “is that it works with and not against the Afghan tradition of a weak ruling center and a strong periphery.”

Under this scenario, “the Taliban would likely return to positions of power in a good many parts of the south,” however. Supposedly, the United States should prevent them from forming an independent nation there but probably won’t. Once American forces pull out, Washington is unlikely to undertake any future counterinsurgency efforts aimed at maintaining the balance of power so preciously attained. It never has. Haass’ “decentralization” scheme would ultimately lead to partition therefore with all the dangers he has identified.

None of the interested powers should welcome partition. Foremost, the United States, which, after almost a decade of war, would leave half of Afghanistan in little better a state than it found it in 2001, still a hotbed for terrorism. India would object for the same reason but also because an independent Pashtunistan would further threatened to undermine the stability of neighboring Pakistan. Part of Pakistan’s leadership, especially its military and intelligence establishment, would rather the Pashtun recapture the whole of Afghanistan, not just the south.

Negotiating with the Taliban would seriously compromise not just the future of Afghanistan but the international position of the United States, according to Thomas Barnett.

Besides signaling surrender, such a move would offend India, already worrying about this administration’s apparent lack of commitment. Barnett stresses that “any deal that sees us choosing fragmented, impoverished Pakistan over rising, increasingly middle-class India is — by definition — strategically unsound.” Fareed Zakaria explained why in December of last year:

Obama must keep in mind that South Asia is a tar pit filled with failed and dysfunctional states, save for one long-established democracy of 1.2 billion people that is the second-fastest-growing major economy in the world, a check on China’s rising ambitions, and a natural ally of the United States. The prize is the relationship with India. The booby prize is governing Afghanistan.

Barnett continues that any deal struck with the Taliban would leave the United States “at the whims of the Saudis and the Chinese.” They are the only great powers able to exert any control over Islamabad. The Obama Administration has so far failed to get China to help in Pakistan though it is reaping the rewards of America’s sacrifices in Afghanistan, scrambling for natural resources and lucrative contracts.

The alternative? Internationalize Afghanistan. Allow India to commit soldiers besides money and force China to take on some security responsibility in exchange for doing business. And, most importantly, learn from previous counterinsurgencies.

The United States will do neither. In the eyes of American policymakers and the American public, having nearby great powers fight alongside US soldiers might be an even greater defeat than leaving Afghanistan to its own devices altogether. The political right is largely in denial about America’s decline while the left is afraid to project weakness to voters.

At the same time has neither the political will to sustain a counterinsurgency in Afghanistan for another decade. Nor has the political leadership enough confidence in commanders on the ground to allow them greater operational freedom. Lastly, the Western public is no longer willing to accept the numbers of civilian and military casualties which a more ruthless campaign, less concerned about winning the “hearts and minds” of the Afghan people, would likely incur. With over 1,100 American fatalities, an historic low for what is now the nation’s longest war, the public’s patience has already worn thin.

So, America will negotiate. It will probably, in the end, allow something of an autonomous Pashtunistan to come into being, controlled by the very Taliban who harbored Al Qaeda and murdered and suppressed their countrymen in the name of Islam. South Asia’s nuclear balance will be left all the more fragile as Pakistan becomes ungovernable while America’s relations with India, by all accounts it natural ally in the region, will be strained for years.

Leave a reply