Exiting Afghanistan with least damage

Exiting Afghanistan with least damage

The American role in Afghanistan is drawing to a close in a manner paralleling the pattern of three other inconclusive wars since the Allied victory in World War II: a wide consensus in entering them, and growing disillusionment as the war drags on, shading into an intense search for an exit strategy with the emphasis on exit rather than strategy.

We entered Afghanistan to punish the Taliban for harbouring Al Qaeda. After a rapid victory, US forces remained to assist the construction of a post-Taliban state. But nation-building ran up against the irony that the Afghan nation comes into being primarily in opposition to occupying forces. When foreign forces are withdrawn, Afghan politics revert to a contest over territory and population by various essentially tribal groups.

In our national debate, the inconclusive effort was blamed on the diversion of resources to Iraq rather than on its inherent implausibility. The new Obama administration coupled withdrawal from Iraq with a surge of troops and materiel in Afghanistan — an effort I supported in substance if not every detail. We have now reached its limit.

Outer limit
The stated goal of creating a government and domestic security structure to which responsibility for the defence of Afghanistan can be turned over is widely recognised as unreachable by 2014, the time set by most Nato nations as the outer limit of the common effort. Polls show that more than 70 per cent of Americans believe that the US should withdraw.

The quest for an alternative has taken the form of negotiations under German sponsorship between representatives of Mullah Omar, the head of the Taliban, and US officials.  The death of Osama bin Laden, while not operationally relevant to current fighting, is a symbolic dividing line.

For negotiation to turn into a viable exit strategy, four conditions must be met: a cease-fire; withdrawal of all or most US and allied forces; the creation of a coalition government or division of territories among the contending parties (or both); and an enforcement mechanism. After decades of civil war, the parties are unlikely to feel bound by provisions of any agreement. Especially the Taliban will try to take over the coalition government or breach the cease-fire.

Although the predominant role of the US sometimes obscures it, the outcome in Afghanistan is, in essence, an international political problem. The perception that the strongest global power has been defeated would give an impetus to global and regional jihadism. The end of such a process is likely to be a proxy war along ethnic fault lines in Afghanistan and elsewhere, especially between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan.
Afghanistan’s other neighbours would be at comparable risk if a Taliban-dominated government or region reverted to the Taliban's original practices. Every neighbour would be threatened: Russia in its partly Muslim south, China in Xinjiang, Shiite Iran by fundamentalist Sunni trends. In turn, Iran would be tempted by the vacuum to arm sectarian militias, a strategy it has honed in Lebanon and Iraq.

The complexities of an exit strategy are compounded because relations with Pakistan and Iran are severely strained. These countries do not have the option of withdrawing from the neighbourhood. If their interests in Afghanistan are not related to ours to some extent, Afghanistan will exist under permanent threat.

Without a sustainable agreement defining Afghanistan’s regional security role, each major neighbour will support rival factions across ancient ethnic and sectarian lines — and be obliged to respond to inevitable crises under the pressure of events. That is a prescription for wider conflict. Afghanistan could then play the role of the Balkans prior to World War I.

Such an outcome would threaten the security of Afghanistan’s neighbours more than America’s. A partly regional, partly global diplomatic effort is needed to accompany direct negotiation with the Taliban. So long as America bears the primary burden, Afghanistan’s neighbours avoid difficult decisions.

The formal deadline established by Nato, the implicit Obama administration deadline and the public mood  it impossible to persist in an open-ended civil war. An immediate withdrawal, largely for symbolic reasons would risk falling between all shoals. A multilateral diplomacy that defines common international security interest proscribing terrorist training centres and terrorist infrastructure in Afghaistan should be undertaken urgently.

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