Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Monday, April 18, 2011

A Conversation: Afghanistan, Part VIII

Brad raised lots of interesting points and in my post I mainly want to do two things. First, I want to make some "devil's advocate" arguments: What if the U.S. just left Afghanistan alone. And in the second part of this short essay, I will conduct a brief comparison between America's successful surge in Iraq and the current surge in Afghanistan.

Let us deal with the first topic, whether it is feasible for the U.S. to leave Afghanistan. The quick answer is that there is no really easy way to leave. There would be lots of angry Republicans yelling that the U.S. spent blood, treasure, etc., only to retreat with its tail behind its legs! Plus, there would be many of human rights things to think about, especially whether things will turn to worse once America leaves, with the Taliban committing war against women's education and liberties.

In short, it is a quick way to commit political suicide, unless Obama can make sure that he left things in a pretty good shape, that America's withdrawal will not cause much dislocation in Afghanistan and beyond. Let us say that the U.S. did forge an agreement with the Taliban: perhaps promising non-interference in Afghanistan as long as they leave the U.S. alone, and likely bringing the group into the national government. Should this happen, I think the Taliban will stay out of Washington's crosshairs. They are not on good terms with AQ anyway, particularly for bringing American power to their doorstep, and the main reason why they tolerate AQ for now is because they really need them to fight the U.S.

Under that scenario, it is possible that the Republicans can be persuaded that the U.S. won the war with honor: the Taliban is finally willing to stop its war and join the new government. Afghanistan is at peace and it is time to pack up and leave. Moreover, we can also make an argument that Afghanistan is not as important as it was at the war's inception. Back in 2002, the U.S. needed to attack Afghanistan to break al-Qaeda and the Taliban's back. Now, however, the Taliban will be more interested in consolidating their grip on power. But they have gotten bloodied badly from war with the U.S., and with how things had evolved from 1990s to today, the Taliban will not be as welcomed as they used to back then, making their life far more difficult.

The good thing about this hypothetical deal is that the Karzai government then will realize that unless they shape up, they might lose badly in the next national elections and the Taliban could rule the country legally. This is not unlike the fight between Palestinian Authority and Hamas, where Hamas' victory in Gaza spurred a reform within the PA.

The biggest problem is whether such action by the U.S. would be tantamount to signaling another Vietnam. Additionally, there is simply no guarantee that the Taliban will honor the bargain, especially with the central government remaining so weak and inefficient. The possibility of the Taliban erasing any progress in women's rights or doing other undesirable things, such as destroying invaluable relics of Afghan's past, is very high. Moreover, we cannot rule out the idea that the Taliban and AQ still might make another agreement out of sheer convenience.

Internationally, this action can also be potentially destabilizing the South Asia region, especially in regards to India and Pakistan. The reason India does not really bother with Pakistan is because it is sure that the US can keep Pakistan quiet. With the U.S. gone, India might be worried of more Pakistan-funded incursions in Kashmir, and the Pakistanis themselves will be able to start focusing their gaze on India. In a sense, then, the argument is whether it fits with America's national interests to keep things to a simmer there by staying in Afghanistan or whether the U.S. should ignore these factors and let both India and Pakistan sort their relationship on their own.

Brad mentioned that the surge worked in both Iraq and Afghanistan. I agree to that proposition with a caveat: the surge only works when the US manages to empower local populations, making them part of the solution. In Iraq, the surge helped strengthen the "Awakening Councils," basically a heavily armed neighborhood watch program comprised of Sunnis who were angry at al-Qaeda. In adding more troops, the U.S. strengthened the position of the existing councils, empowering civilians, and created a security fallback for other communities interested in creating this kind of council. People were willing to stand up against al-Qaeda because they believed that the U.S. was going to help them when they were down.

In Afghanistan, unfortunately, it seems that the U.S. is the only one doing the lifting. The general population, in essence, are apathetic, angry at both the government and the Taliban, and thus unwilling to provide any military support at all. Moreover, while al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia is comprised of many foreign fighters who espouse a different brand of Islam from local Iraqis, the Taliban is a comprised of Pashtuns, natives of Afghanistan. As a result, the surge in Afghanistan does not work as well as it did in Iraq.

So back to our main question: what should the U.S. do in Afghanistan? As I noted above, military withdrawal carries risks. But staying there is not that appealing either. We probably should go back to the drawing board of "nation-building," which is strengthening the Afghanistan government. Ahmed Rashid's article in the Foreign Policy is relevant to this discussion. I do think he misses the mark in some respects: he is too lenient on Karzai, especially on his performance as the President of Afghanistan. Yet Mr. Rashid is right when he noted that Obama's approach to Karzai left much to be desired. Bush might be too soft on Karzai, but Obama's disengagement and his thin-skin knee-jerk reaction to General McChrystal's Rolling Stone interview hurt the America's interests in Afghanistan.

Without a strong Afghanistan government, even if the U.S. manages to make an agreement with Taliban, such agreement will unravel sooner or later, especially when the U.S. leaves. We cannot have a lasting agreement between a weak party (Afghan government) and a strong party (the Taliban), as the strong party will overwhelm the weak party as soon as opportunities arise.

I know Brad wants me to have the last word, but I think I will throw the ball back to Brad so he can write a paragraph or two wrapping up our very interesting conversation.

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