Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Saturday, April 9, 2011

A Conversation: Afghanistan, Part V

Because I agree with quite a bit of what you last wrote, it was trickier than usual to come up with this post. In the end, I have come up three different points to talk about. One point of disagreement, one point of contention, and, lastly, a general comment on the role of the U.S. in Afghanistan.

Here we go...

1. I do not entirely agree with your argument that Afghanistan is not a graveyard for empires/great powers. One of your punchlines from this argument–at least in my opinion–is that past wars there did not have to turn out the way they did. Events could have unfolded differently had different decisions been made by the British, Russians, and Americans. On this, I agree. The wars fought by those three countries were not predestined to end in such colossal failures. Indeed, England, Russia, and the U.S. could have withdrew from their conflicts far earlier than they did/will, thereby saving an enormous amount of blood and treasure.

That said, choosing to fight in Afghanistan did not make life easier for the U.S. (Or the British or Russians) The geography of Afghanistan, as well as how Afghan society is ordered and structured, stacked the deck against American forces. The rocky, mountainous geography are barriers to fighting and capturing militants/terrorists in the country. And Afghanistan’s location–next door to Pakistan–ensures that the country’s borders remain permeable, which allows Afghans to flee the scene, when necessary, and evade the Americans. Furthermore, Afghanistan’s patchwork of various tribes and ethnic groups dooms the kind of project that the U.S. has been undertaking: nation building. It is awfully difficult to create a state from scratch, and even more so in a country in which there is little social cohesion and the people almost inherently resist and despise any notion of central authority.

2. Why do you consider Karzai’s moves toward negotiating with the Taliban and Pakistan a bad thing? After more than nine years of war, it is clear that military force alone will not thwart the activities of the Taliban. There is no way Kabul and the U.S. will be able to impose a settlement on the Taliban and its allies. All sides are stuck in a stalemate. As a result, there needs to be a political process to break the deadlock.

One part of this process should include discussions with Pakistan. After all, if the situation is to be effectively resolved, at a minimum, Kabul will need Pakistan to clamp down on the Taliban and AQ elements inside of its borders. A second part should focus on talks with the Taliban. The Taliban must be pulled in from the outside and integrated into society.

Now, I say this last point with two caveats. One, Kabul has to figure out which Taliban members are careerists–those possibly likely to reconcile with the government–and which ones are belong to the hardcore, the extreme–those far less likely to give up the fight. Two, we do not know the bargaining space between those Taliban members willing to negotiate and Kabul. The larger that space or gap, the longer the hostilities will continue. This is why the military component cannot be ignored right now. If Kabul and the U.S. can continue to put pressure on the Taliban, causing its members believe that their options are limited and time is not on their side, then the bargaining space will naturally narrow and make a political solution more doable.

3. Obama needs to do whatever he can to get Pakistan to cooperate more forcefully and effectively in the war in Afghanistan. Simply put, the status quo is unsustainable. As of this moment, Kabul is too feckless and corrupt to be a difference-maker. And the U.S., engaged in two other military conflicts and faced with a damaged economy, is looking to shift much more of the burden to Afghanistan. Pakistan is the key. Pakistan can contribute far, far more than it has, and it must do so. Think of it this way: In a best case scenario, even if Kabul is able to get some kind of a deal done with the Taliban, the country will not be internally safe or stable as long as the group has an open sanctuary in Pakistan where the hardcore members can roam free and cause havoc inside of Afghanistan. This must change.

At this point, I do not think dangling any further carrots is a worthwhile endeavor for Team Obama. The U.S. has given Pakistan a sufficient amount of political, economic, and especially military assistance to comply with its requests. Enough. It is high time to begin using some political and military sticks. Perhaps Obama should hint at withholding aid to Pakistan. Maybe he should suggest at stronger unilateral military action (e.g., more than just drones) in Pakistan. Regardless, Obama and his team must do much more effective diplomatic work, if any semblance of good is to result of America’s intervention. Quite frankly, viewed in this way, and with little hindsight, we can say that the loss of Richard Holbrooke (the former chief U.S. liaison to Afghanistan and Pakistan) is doubly tragic.

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