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 Registan.net 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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
20 comments

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Mr Haas forgot to mention the third USA objective, namely the continued supply of sweet poppies to the world market. As soon as the so called Talibans come in power they are going to burn down the poppy fields!! Poor american drug addicts, tough times are coming for them. Also is’nt it naive to think that the loosing side is to dictate the terms. Besides the Pashtoon Talibans do not negotiate with foreigners, they want them out. The story about the railway is also a lie, the Brits arranged with several tribes and against a regular payment road net works (and the railway line to Khyber) were built connecting their cantonments. After their departure the Pakistan Govt. has been making regular payments.
Rex Minor

Posted by pakistan | Report as abusive

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Mr Haas forgot to mention the third USA objective, namely the continued supply of sweet poppies to the world market.
==
Do the Reuters moderators beleive Mr.Minor adheres to blog guidelines here?! Full of racist, prejudiced drivel.

Posted by Seekeroftruth | Report as abusive

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@seeker of
Perhaps you delete truth from your title. Also imrove your english if you see racist remarks in my post!! Have you not seen the photograph of the poppy field on this blogue with the US marine guarding it? Are you also not aware that poppie fields were burnt down when the so called talibans were ruling the country! Please apprecite some humour as well and not always spit your venom against muslims and Pakistan.
Rex Minor

Posted by pakistan | Report as abusive

seekeroftruth:
‘Do the Reuters moderators beleive Mr.Minor adheres to blog guidelines here?! Full of racist, prejudiced drivel.’

-seeker what about the racist and prejudiced drivel and venom that Indians spew towards Pakistan? Are only Pakistanis required to adhere to the guidelines of this blog and you are free to state and write whatever you want to?

Posted by Umairpk | Report as abusive

@Umair:
Mr.Minor’s racist perversion, prejudice, twisted interpretation of history and bigotry about non-muslims show in each and every post. He would like to claim “sense of humor”. You are welcome to and I’m sure you already point out to Reuters.

You make patriotic, nationalistic assertions. I don’t find them offensive. You conduct discourse here with dignity despite difference of opinion. I hope you are not claiming criticizing Pakistan, Army/ISI and terrorism is not the equivalent of criticizing Islam or muslims in general. The later I don’t get into.

Regards.

Posted by Seekeroftruth | Report as abusive

typo correction- I hope you are not claiming criticizing Pakistan, Army/ISI and terrorism is the equivalent of criticizing Islam or muslims in general.

Posted by Seekeroftruth | Report as abusive

A very simple and good reason for America to withdraw from Afghanistan is that it can no longer afford to stay. Not only are your soldiers being killed, but your economy is also edging towards bankruptcy.

Posted by Castlecrag | Report as abusive

Myra,

The Richard Haas article has failed to spell out US aims and objectives in Afghanistan half a world away from US . US is certainly not worried about Al-Queda or other terrorist organisation allegedly operating from Afghanistan and definitely stability of Pakistan is not their sole concern. There are other hot spots in the world, why US is not getting involved ?

Is it not due to the fact, Afghanistan is located strategically from Afghanistan, US can control oil and mineral rich countries of Central Asia and Iran , and perhaps also can keep an eye on China and India .

Posted by manishindia | Report as abusive

Best I can tell, the Taliban made one big mistake. They took in Al Qaeda and then attempted to defend them. (I guess that’s two, related mistakes.) While few can tolerate their oppressive treatment of women and other practices, is this really the US’ concern? No. The US came for Al Qaeda and those that harbor them. This part of the mission appears complete. Now lets let these people live in whatever manner suits them and get the hell out. If they make the same mistake again, I will pity them.

Posted by newDay001 | Report as abusive

Brilliant, leave Afghanistan and fund a civil war. At least the blood won’t directly be on our hands anymore. Let’s just put more money and guns into another foreign country and see what happens. Just get out and let the Afghans move on and get over this whole debacle.

Posted by killyridols | Report as abusive

@jameshendry
I was not criticising any one’s english. I was simply surprise to note that my writing gave the impression that i am a racist? I thought we have no rules to follow in the internet post. spellings and grammar is immaterial as long as the message is understood. As a non american i was simply trying to give a bit of english flavour to the word ‘Blog’, it sounds too rough to me. Sorry if this caused you the concern. Incidently, we are all foreign to each other!!
Rex Minor

Posted by pakistan | Report as abusive

@newday
The so called Talibans have made no mistake. Nor have the USA completed any mission. The USA is now there for a longer period than they were in Vietnam, the USA economy flourishes on wars, something Hitler did with the german economy, the continued peace in the world is going to choke USA current industrial structure; being the largest exporter of arms to the world.
Rex Minor

Posted by pakistan | Report as abusive

RexMinor:

Do you have to oppose someone for the heck of it?

here is an example:
newday001 said:
“Best I can tell, the Taliban made one big mistake. They took in Al Qaeda and then attempted to defend them. (I guess that’s two, related mistakes.”

you oppose him:
“@newday, The so called Talibans have made no mistake.”

Then under other article you say:
“they (TALIBAN) should have handed over thir arab guests who fought with them against the soviets, to George W the leader of the West. etc. etc.”

Your posts are studded with such contradictions and you have been asked to explain which you never do. Now read carefully before replying.

Posted by RajeevK | Report as abusive

RexMinor:

Do you have to oppose someone for the heck of it?

newday001 said:
“Best I can tell, the Taliban made one big mistake. They took in Al Qaeda and then attempted to defend them. (I guess that’s two, related mistakes.”

you opposed him:
“@newday, The so called Talibans have made no mistake.”

Then you said (new entry):
“they (TALIBAN) should have handed over thir arab guests who fought with them against the soviets, to George W the leader of the West. etc. etc.”

Care to explain why you criticize him?

Posted by RajeevK | Report as abusive

Care to explain why you criticize him or HER?

Posted by RajeevK | Report as abusive

I just love the attitude of “if we can’t win we may as well bugger off.” Says it all about the Yanks.

Posted by dedsetmad | Report as abusive

“I just love the attitude of “if we can’t win we may as well bugger off.” Says it all about the Yanks.”

That’s the reason why Talibs/Pashtuns are hard to defeat. There is a special kind of Pashtun bravery in running away from the battlegrounds. Don’t you know that concept of pride and honor is a propaganda by zionists? :)

Posted by Seth | Report as abusive

I get the impression that there are some who by raising questions are gradually trying to convert this forum into a kindergarten? Some even comply and provide references from the media. I guess there are many others who are reading the commenries in silence and I propose to join them for some time.
Rex Minor

Posted by pakistan | Report as abusive

@Rex/Minor Pakistan,

You keep harping on about bloggers posting references from the media and internet.

If you do not agree with this, kindly supply credible sources of info for us, where can we post things from.

Please do not past Al-Arabiya, PTV or Al-Jazeera, we know mostly, there is a huge biased arabic slant towards non-muslims there.

Please confirm if we should consult the coconut sitting on your shoulders for news references. We will try to be accommodating to your needs.

Posted by G-W | Report as abusive

@GW
you can read and consult as many news channels as you can, but for heavens sake do not quote them as references or authority. They represent the views of a journalist who most probably do not speak the language or understand the culture of the people he is writing about. We all know now that the so called talibans are bad the Indians and the Americans are the best….one does not need to repeat the motherhood again and again quoting news papers as a proof, because they are not. Sorry for the late response because I was out of town. Regards,
Rex Minor

Posted by pakistan | Report as abusive