Richard Haass on Afghanistan – time to scale down U.S. ambitions

July 18, 2010

arghandab3Richard Haass, president at the Council on Foreign Relations, has become the latest to urge the United States to change course in Afghanistan and to seek a political settlement to try to bring an end to the war.

“The war the United States is now fighting in Afghanistan is not succeeding and is not worth waging in this way. The time has come to scale back U.S. objectives and sharply reduce U.S. involvement on the ground. Afghanistan is claiming too many American lives, requiring too much attention, and absorbing too many resources. The sooner we accept that Afghanistan is less a problem to be fixed than a situation to be managed, the better,”  he writes in an article in Newsweek.

Haass argues that the United States needs to focus clearly on what it is seeking to accomplish in Afghanistan. “The two main American goals are to prevent al Qaeda from reestablishing a safe haven and to make sure that Afghanistan does not undermine the stability of Pakistan.”

This could be achieved, he says, through a political settlement which would include decentralisation of governance in Afghanistan, U.S. support for local Afghan leaders who rejected al Qaeda and did not seek to undermine Pakistan; and talks with the Taliban, along with an acknowledgement that the movement was likely to regain power in parts of the Pashtun-dominated south.

“The advantage of this option is that it works with and not against the Afghan tradition of a weak ruling center and a strong periphery. It would require revision of the Afghan constitution, which as it stands places too much power in the hands of the president,” he says.

“Under this scenario, the Taliban would likely return to positions of power in a good many parts of the south. The Taliban would know, however, that they would be challenged by U.S. air power and Special Forces (and by U.S.-supported Afghans) if they attacked non-Pashtun areas, if they allowed the areas under their control to be used to supply antigovernment forces in Pakistan, or if they worked in any way with al Qaeda. There is reason to believe that the Taliban might not repeat their historic error of inviting al Qaeda back into areas under their control. Indeed, the United States should stop assuming that the two groups are one and the same and instead start talking to the Taliban to underscore how their interests differ from al Qaeda’s.”

Such ideas are not new – it has long been clear that the United States and its allies had shifted their sights from defeating the Taliban to fighting over the terms of a settlement.  Many analysts, particularly here in London, have been arguing for months for greater provincial autonomy for Afghanistan as a way of easing the strains which could otherwise lead to a renewed civil war or de facto partition in the event of a U.S. withdrawal. But that the suggestion comes from someone of Haass’s stature, with a track record inside the U.S. administration, highlights the extent to which American thinking is evolving on Afghanistan.

Whether it would work or not would be up to the Afghans to decide through negotiations in a kind of “Bonn II” – a rerun of the 2001 talks in Bonn on the future of Afghanistan which have been criticised by some for leaving out key players, particularly the then-defeated Taliban. It would also require regional players – particularly Pakistan and India – to refrain from manipulating the outcome in their own interest – not an obvious prospect given the slow pace of peace talks between the two countries. (For some background on this do read this post by Joshua Foust at both on the centralisation/decentralisation argument and on the need to avoid over-simplifying the Afghan conflict into a proxy war between Pakistan and India – though that also plays a role.)

There’s no sign yet, however, that the United States is about to change course – Haass himself acknowledges that no change is likely until December when President Barack Obama conducts another review of U.S. policy on Afghanistan.

And so far the mechanics do not seem to be in place for a negotiated settlement. Real negotiations – as opposed to contacts through intermediaries which may or may not be taking place – would require Taliban leaders to come out in the open. That is something they are unlikely to do without a ceasefire, and the removal of their names from the  United Nations 1267 list of individuals subject to anti-terrorism sanctions. As discussed in this post, the United States is unlikely to want to take Taliban names off the list until they renounce ties with al Qaeda; but the Taliban is unlikely to renounce ties with al Qaeda until after negotiations start.

If U.S. thinking really is evolving towards a negotiated settlement, you would expect to see more articles by prominent analysts like Haass not just on the nature of any settlement but on the mechanics of how this should be negotiated and indeed how long any negotiations might take.

Otherwise, I am reminded of a story recounted at one of the many conferences on the future of Afghanistan and Pakistan organised by think tanks in London over the winter.  It may or may not be apocryphal, but it serves its function of illustrating the likely difficulty and length of any negotiations. Back in the days of the British, so the story went, long and protracted negotiations were held with local tribes on building a railway line into Pashtun lands.  Eventually the British won the agreement, began building the tracks, and brought in a train to run on them. The tribes at that point objected – they had, they said, agreed only to the railway tracks but no one had mentioned trains. A whole new round of negotiations would be needed before these could be added.








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