The way out of the Afghan abyss

By David Rohde
March 16, 2012

To a growing number of Americans, Afghanistan is a festering pit where the United States has no vital interests. To a growing number of Afghans, the United States is a self-absorbed and feckless power that is playing games in their country.

Both caricatures are wrong. Yes, American troops should gradually withdraw from Afghanistan. And yes, the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai remains corrupt and largely ineffective. But what is needed is a decisive agreement between the Afghan and American governments on the way forward, not sniping at each other in public and pandering to domestic political audiences.

First, let’s discard some myths:

Afghanistan is strategically unimportant to the United States: For even the most cynical Americans, a stable Afghanistan is important because of the roughly 100 nuclear warheads sitting in neighboring Pakistan. If hardline Taliban regain control of southern Afghanistan, it will be a safe haven for Pakistani Taliban and foreign militants. Attacks against Pakistan will definitely be plotted, and attacks on the United States could be planned from there as well.

All Afghans want Americans forces to leave immediately: The shameful video of Marines urinating on Taliban corpses, burning of Korans and massacre of 16 civilians will clearly increase the number of Afghans who want American soldiers out. In a November 2010 poll, 55 percent of Afghans said U.S. forces should withdraw immediately, but only 9 percent supported the Taliban. In some ways, there are two Afghanistans. The Taliban enjoy support in the rural south and east, but many Afghans – particularly the 23 percent who are city-dwellers and comparatively prosperous – fear that a post-American Afghanistan will quickly descend into civil war. They want the U.S. to help craft a political settlement before leaving. The violence today in Afghanistan is gruesome, but more Afghans died during the civil war of the 1990s.

An immediate American withdrawal will bring peace to Afghanistan: Michael Semple, an Afghanistan expert and longtime proponent of negotiating with the Taliban, argues that a hurried American withdrawal decreases the likelihood of reaching a negotiated agreement with the Taliban. “Any further acceleration would reduce the chances for a peace agreement,” he told me in an email, “and even increase the chances of a civil war.” If the Taliban think all U.S. forces are leaving in 2014, why would they come to the negotiating table and compromise now?

All Taliban are rabid fundamentalists uninterested in compromise: The decision by the Taliban’s leadership to negotiate with the U.S. was a controversial inside the group, according to Semple. Pragmatists supported it. Hawks opposed it. A political settlement in Afghanistan is the one way the Taliban can gain international acceptance and free themselves from the control of Pakistan’s intelligence service. That carrot is real; the United States should use it. Today’s “suspension” is a negotiating tactic. Talks will and should continue.

Accelerating the withdrawal of American troops is smart election year politics for Obama: A chaotic American withdrawal from Afghanistan will not help the president’s re-election effort. Stephen Biddle of the Council of Foreign Relations argues that Obama should maintain his current approach in Afghanistan and try to keep the country out of the news. “This is not a major political issue,” Biddle said in a conference call today with reporters. “The smartest approach is to be reasonable and centrist. Take the issue off the table.”

What should we do?

Hold steady: A mixed message is one of the things that has undermined Obama’s strategy in Afghanistan. He vastly increased American forces in 2009 but then announced they would leave in 18 months. The president says U.S. forces are withdrawing but is trying to negotiate a long-term agreement that will allow some American forces to remain in the country. The administration should adopt a clear message, stick to it and quietly look for an alternative to Karzai, who has promised to not run for re-election when his current term ends in 2014.

Deploy Afghans, not Americans: Most American forces should withdraw from Afghanistan by the end of 2014 as planned. But the U.S. should complete negotiations with the Afghan government to keep a residual force of 10,000 to 15,000 primarily Special Forces soldiers in the country to train Afghans and provide air support. The US and its NATO allies should guarantee at least five years of funding for Afghanistan’s now 350,000-strong security forces. A proposal to reduce the force to 230,000 should be rejected. The roughly $6 billion it will cost to fund Afghan forces annually is a fraction of the roughly $120 billion the U.S. spent in Afghanistan last year. Properly funded Afghan forces backed by U.S. Special Forces and air power can hold off the Taliban. The Taliban and their Pakistani backers can face stalemate through 2017 or negotiate.

Transfer Taliban commanders: The administration should transfer five Taliban commanders now held in Guantánamo Bay to house arrest in Qatar. The step will move forward talks with the Taliban and trigger a promised public statement from the group renouncing international terrorism and severing ties with Al Qaeda. If the Taliban fail to make the announcement or make other concessions, their unwillingness to compromise will be confirmed.

Pressure the Pakistani military: Guaranteeing the long-term funding of Afghan security forces and negotiating with pragmatic Taliban is the most effective way to pressure the Pakistani military to back a peace settlement. Pakistani army commanders must be convinced that the Taliban will not quickly triumph in a post-American Afghanistan. Instead, Pakistan will have a chaotic civil war, vast amounts of Afghan refugees and a Pakistani Taliban sanctuary on its border.

Afghanistan matters. Washington has cards to play. And there is still time for all sides to step back from the abyss of civil war.

PHOTO: A U.S. military Black Hawk helicopter flies out of Forward Operating Base Joyce in Kunar province, eastern Afghanistan, March 15, 2012. REUTERS/Erik De Castro

13 comments

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An immediate American withdrawal from Afghanistan will indeed bring peace — to the USA. That should be the only objective of the US Government. We are not an Imperial power and we do not want to be, in spite of our odd tolerance of the presence in our country of war mongering Israelis. We do not exist as a decorative adjunct to Israel and its ambitions of domination.

Out of Afghanistan right now! Permit war lovers a personal one way air ticket to Kabul, an M16 and a can of ammo. Let them go try it themselves, on their own personal nickel rather than with my Medicare money. No more Middle Eastern wars / military / covert / contractor activity, period!

We care about America. Those of you focused outside of the country should go there and stay.

Posted by txgadfly | Report as abusive

I agree with the early withdrawal of the troops. It should be completed bu Oct 1,2012

Posted by Susanbsbi | Report as abusive

Of course I’d like the US to leave Afghanistan, but I worry about the way women have been treated in the past and how they will be treated if the US leaves too precipitately without making sure women have a voice in any future government. The outrageous expectations of how women should behave and the restrictions on their lives under the Taliban must be eliminated completely. The burka must be eliminated for example.

Posted by sarahell | Report as abusive

Are we going to wait so long that we’ll see people evacuating Kabul by helicopter, as we did in Saigon?

Posted by Nickntime | Report as abusive

@Susanbsbi: Couldn’t you be more bold and honest, and say the withdrawal should be completed by November 6th, 2012?

Posted by matthewslyman | Report as abusive

It’s too bad Afghanistan, the USSR and the US didn’t work out an agreement whereby Afghanistan was spared from becoming a battleground in the cold war. Instead, starting in the late 1960s or early 1970s, the three countries could have set aside their differences and cooperated on mutually beneficial economic development.

It’s too bad Iran, the USSR, the UK and the US didn’t work out an agreement whereby Iran was spared from becoming a battleground in the cold war. Instead, starting in the late 1940s or early 1950s, the four countries could have set aside their differences and cooperated on mutually beneficial economic development.

It’s too bad Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Taliban and the US can’t work out an agreement whereby Afghanistan is spared from remaining a battleground in the Global War Against Terrorism. Instead, starting ASAP, the four parties could set aside their differences and cooperate on mutually beneficial economic development.

In short, it’s too bad human beings weren’t some other species that was capable of setting aside their differences and cooperating on mutually beneficial economic development.

Posted by TobyONottoby | Report as abusive

matthewslyman -

Couldn’t you add that you are strongly supportive of Mr Romney’s presidential aspirations?

Posted by TobyONottoby | Report as abusive

Sorry, dude, but:
Afghanistan IS strategically unimportant to the US. Your doomsday scenario of the Afghani Taliban suddenly getting control of Pakistan’s nukes is a pipe dream. Pakistan had nukes for quite some time before we attacked Afghanistan and they weren’t in any danger then. The Taliban aren’t going to suddenly gain seriously improved capabilities now.

The vast majority of Afghanis want the US out. Your poll data is from 2010, two years ago. Matters have deteriorated significantly since then and even two years ago a majority wanted us out by your own data. Frankly, your poll data of the number of Afghanis that support the Taliban is a red herring. Weather or not the Afghanis support the Taliban is unrelated to weather or not they want us to leave. You claim that the Afghanis want the US to assist in crafting a peace agreement to end their civil war but offer nothing to support such a claim.

The only thing that will bring peace to the Afghanistan is a political settlement among the various political actors in the country. Such a political settlement will have to include the Taliban. If the US were an honest political broker we might be able to assist, but we’re not. You yourself admit that when you say that the point behind leaving a large residual force in Afghanistan after our alleged departure is to hold off the Taliban. That is simply not going to work. They were in the midst of a civil war when we invaded and our invasion didn’t make that civil war go away.

Beyond all that, your piece reeks of imperial arrogance and the clear assumption that we should make Afghanistan a client state of the US where we are the ultimate power brokers. Are we unhappy with our current puppet, Karzai? We, and not the Afghanis, will find a replacement puppet. An underlying assumption in your nostrums is that Afghanistan should have the governmental structure we saddled them with even though it wasn’t the structure they had before we invaded. The reality is that if the various parties in Afghanistan cut a political deal and returned to their traditional political structures, there would be no need for hundreds of thousands of “police” (army troops with a stickum that says police). The fact that we’re trying to saddle them with structures that the country couldn’t afford in a million years tells you we’re going down the wrong path.

Yes, we should be negotiating with the Taliban but not just the Taliban. We should have all the Afghani parties sitting down and negotiating a solution while we assist. But, in fact, we are sitting down with only the Taliban because we wish to impose OUR solution on the country. That will do exactly zero to resolve the civil war they were engaged in prior to our invasion. Furthermore, making ludicrous demands like insisting that the Taliban renounce international terrorism, which they never engaged in, evinces a total lack of comprehension of the situation. The Taliban are not Al-Qaeda and vice versa. Yes, our invasion forced them into each others arms but a statement by the Taliban breaking ties with Al-Qaeda will be meaningless as long as our actions continue to drive them into each others arms.

Posted by majkmushrm | Report as abusive

This ranks as one of the most naive and misleading analyses ever written by a person over twelve years of age. Maybe it was intended as a joke piece. Yeah, that must be it.

(This isn’t abuse, just a statement of opinion.)

Posted by ptiffany | Report as abusive

The only reason we are in Afghanistan is to deprive China of oil, since Afghanistan is between Iran and China. When are we going to stop misleading everyone for the real reason for Western presence, as well as Russian presence before that? Afghanistan would be a perfect route for a pipeline to China from Iran, and would have to pass through Afghanistan. Why else would anyone want to be in the “graveyard of civilizations”? Plus, U.S. has not been able to win any wars in Asia, the best they have managed in a stalemate in Korea. So why keep doing something that ends in failure? Simply a way to line pockets of the military/industrial complex. We will end running away with our tail between our legs, and then have the Right claim that the war was won on the ground, but our boys were abandoned by the politicians, just as in Vietnam. We are just postponing the inevitable.

Posted by contrarianview | Report as abusive

China doesn’t need a pipe line over the mountains to get oil from Iran. They have enough buck$ to outbid everybody else to get all the oil they want from any country with oil for sale.

Posted by Grousefeather | Report as abusive

Everything Mr. Rohde writes is basically correct. But to implement such sweeping strategic changes requires more than simple courage. It requires decisiveness and iron-fisted determination come-what-may in the face of absolute calamity on the ground there. And even with that it requires no small amount of good luck.

We’ve seen all this before, and in the not-too-distant past, elsewhere: in mid-July, 1914, and early-August, 1939. If those missed opportunities to sidestep decades of catastrophe offer any insight, one has a better chance of commanding the Sun to rise in the west and being obeyed … .

Posted by hogsmile | Report as abusive

Rohde reminds me of Ronald Reagan on the eve of Star Wars and the S&L Blowout. ‘Results take time (and $Bs and $Bs, to paraphrase Carl Sagan), but I know we will get there’ (‘there’ being a permanent Corporate Junta).

Afghanistan is strategically unimportant to the United States? It doesn’t matter if it is, or isn’t! Let’s not forget that Karzai was Taliban Ambassador to the UN when they met with the future Cheney Energy Policy Committee in Houston in *1997* to discuss Afghanistan’s treasures, then were put up in a Manhattan penthouse right up until the final days of 2001. Karzai went on as ‘America’s Puppet’ reselected in 2009 to award the fabulous Aynak copper reserve to … China, and recently the 100-years of oil and gas reserves to … China. Our kids dying in harm’s way and our $100 billion a year in lost taxes are protecting the foreign resource leases of … Red China! Who wants to be the last American to die for the former Taliban Ambassador and Premier Wen Jiabao!?

All Afghans want Americans forces to leave immediately? Actually, they DO! The only Afghans who want America to stay are Karzai’s National Monopoly, his ANA/ANP gestapo and $2 billion a year agencies intelligentsia living off the American ‘aid’ budget, as cover for round-tripping 85% (according to our own ambassadors) of our lost taxes right back to WADC-NOVA war profiteers and mercenaries. The Average Afghan only sees 55c a YEAR of American aid!

An immediate American withdrawal will bring peace to Afghanistan? NOTHING will bring peace to Afghanistan, not since Zbigniew Brzezinski put a bug in President Carter’s ear to open a black ops budget for Afghanistan, and in his hatred for the Soviets, plunged Afghanistan, once the ‘Garden of Central Asia’, into a death spiral on behalf of the WADC apparatchik and their rabid PNAC, then Zbig has the brass to LECTURE US on Afghanistan!

All Taliban are rabid fundamentalists uninterested in compromise? Not at all. They were savvy enough to tell Cheney to stuff it, when Cheney offered a ‘carpet of gold, or a carpet of bombs’, for Afghanistan’s resources at an obscene 1c royalty. They were savvy enough to beat the US-funded Northern Alliance and take control of a proud country shattered by 10 years of industrial meat grinding and another 10 years of open looting, highway robbery and civil war. That takes real compromise. But nobody, nobody, surrenders their homeland to Corporate without a fight. Davey Crockett and Daniel Boone didn’t.

It’s over. All that’s left is the looting of America’s Social Security Trust Fund, which now ‘owns’ 48% of Bush Oil Wars Junk Bonds, and more being pawned off secretly by Fed and Treasury every single day, to pay for a $T+ runway blowout of ‘defense’ (sic) grift. ‘The Sound of Freedom’ is the groans of American homeless and wage slaves, now 1/5th of USA, and more every day until our SSTF is completely looted by 2014, and you know and I know those Bush Oil War Junk Bonds will NEVER be repaid.

If you want to really understand what’s going on, read:

Marc Herold, ‘Afghanistan as an Empty Resource Space’ http://cursor.org/stories/emptyspace.htm l

-and-

Peter Torbay ‘Diminution and Development’ http://preview.tinyurl.com/6rcuxrc

Posted by Chip_H | Report as abusive