Afghanistan: a long war, and still in search of a strategy

December 6, 2012

The late Richard Holbrooke’s widow, Kati Marton, once recalled that by the summer of 2010 the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan had worked out how the United States might settle the Afghan war. “He said, ‘I think I’ve got it. I think I can see how all the pieces can fit together,’’” the National Journal quoted her as saying. “It looked like he was working a Rubik’s cube in his head.”

We will never know whether Holbrooke, who died in December 2010, would have been able to deliver on that vision. But we do know that U.S. policy on Afghanistan and Pakistan has drifted over the last few years to the point where domestic U.S. pressure is growing for a rapid exit. Or as former U.S. ambassador to Islamabad Cameron Munter said in an interview last month, it was one in which you might “win a few battles and lose the war”.

And while we are seeing some fresh momentum now – from a renewed U.S. commitment to engage with Taliban insurgents, to improved relations between the United States and Pakistan, to structured negotiations between Afghanistan and Pakistan  – it remains almost as hard as ever to see how it is all meant to fit together.

The U.S. domestic debate on Afghanistan continues to focus largely on the  use of force, from how many U.S. soldiers should stay after most foreign combat troops leave at the end of 2014 to the merits of drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas.  But beyond what seems to be an unhelpfully narrow definition of containing al Qaeda,  it rarely discusses what that use of force is for.  Is the aim for  Afghanistan to be just about stable enough to fend off civil war, convince insurgents to negotiate, while hoping (and hope is not a strategy) that Pakistan will steady itself despite deep-rooted militant and sectarian violence?  Or do the earlier ambitions – still very much in play when Holbrooke was alive – of achieving a lasting peace deal stand?

Whatever happens, we know it is going to be muddled. Afghanistan faces in 2014 the triple transition of the security handover from foreign to Afghan forces, the political challenges of holding a presidential election; and the inevitable shrinkage of its economy. (And do add for good measure  the time-consuming, logistical difficulties of pulling foreign troops and equipment out of Afghanistan.)  But without a rough idea of where we are meant to be going, it will be hard to tell if we are muddling backwards or forwards.

Take for example, talks with the Taliban. As Michael Cohen and Michael Hanna argued in Foreign Policy last month, President Barack Obama’s administration should invest political capital in helping these gain traction. (The United States should arguably have done so many years ago – at the latest in early 2010 when it had the pre-surge threat of force on its side and before it killed off many mid-level commanders who might have been more amenable to peace than their younger successors. ) One way or the other – and we can argue about the extent of their support inside Afghanistan – the Taliban are stakeholders in the Afghan conflict and cannot be wished away.

That said, what do talks with the Taliban mean? Is the aim simply to get the process up and running, while recognising such talks can take a very long time? (for comparison, Britain held its first direct talks with the Irish Republican Army in 1972, decades before a settlement.) Is the focus on reintegrating individual fighters and commanders into the Afghan political process, or seeking a broad-based deal which would carry the stamp of approval and authority of Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar?

What compromises should be made for a deal with the Taliban? How are ordinary Afghans, half of whom are women, and its growing youth population, to be represented in talks? Should any settlement wait until after the 2014 elections in order to have a government with the legitimacy to negotiate on behalf of all Afghans, or will those polls be too flawed to make a difference?

And who is the other party to negotiations with the Afghan government?  Is it the Pakistan Army, which dominates security policy and is accused of supporting the Taliban; the Taliban leadership; or aggrieved, mainly Pashtun, Afghan insurgents? If a peace deal is to be negotiated with Pakistan, the demands would likely include a recognition by Afghanistan of the Durand Line as the international border; a reduction of Indian influence,  and continued support from the United States – financial as well as hardware – for the Pakistani military. If the aim is to win over disgruntled Pashtuns, the negotiating position would be different – most Pashtuns, for example, resent the Durand Line  (even the Taliban refused to recognise it when they were in power from 1996 to 2001.) A compromise is possible – a reopening of old trade and transit routes from Afghanistan through Pakistan to India that made the border less relevant, might make its recognition more palatable.  But the  sequencing is hard – Pakistan will not feel comfortable opening transit routes until its borders are secured; the security of its borders may depend on them opening.



Then to return to the Rubik’s cube, where does India fit into the picture? When the Taliban were in power, Afghanistan was used as a base by Pakistani militant groups fighting India in Kashmir and beyond. Ahead of the U.S. departure, India has the option of expanding its involvement in Afghanistan, thereby likely aggravating Pakistan, or hanging back in the hope of more lasting settlement. Relations between Pakistan and India have thawed as trade opens up between the two countries. But further improvement, including over disputed Kashmir, has stalled given Pakistan’s failure to take action against the Lashkar-e-Taiba militant group behind the 2008 attack on Mumbai which killed 166 people.  That makes it all the harder to see how they will reduce their mutual distrust over their roles in Afghanistan.

The United States, meanwhile, has shown increasing concern itself over the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), offering a $10 million bounty for information leading to the conviction of its founder Hafez Saeed, who continues to play a prominent public role in Pakistan.  As the only Salafist militant group in Pakistan, the LeT has a religious affinity with al Qaeda;  its parent organisation was co-founded to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan by Abdullah Azzam, whose ideology inspired global jihad. And some evidence suggests that it was the LeT’s need to compete with al Qaeda to retain the loyalty of its more impatient cadres after Pakistan curbed the Kashmir jihad that led to its decision to attack Mumbai in 2008.

How far is the United States willing to tolerate the continued activity in Pakistan of the LeT (or, rather, its humanitarian wing, the Jammat-ud-Dawa, which says it is no longer linked to the LeT)  in return for Pakistan Army support in securing a deal with the Taliban in Afghanistan? And what is the fall-back plan should there be another big attack on India which is traced back to Pakistan?

Or to take that question further, to what extent is the United States willing to leave in place what it sees as Pakistan’s ambivalent attitude towards militant groups, supporting some, while fighting others? For now, it has settled on an awkward compromise. It is cooperating with the Pakistan military to try to end the Afghan war, while also seeking long-term bases in Afghanistan which could be used for drone strikes in Pakistan.  Pakistan, far less resilient than it was when the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, has little to gain from an Afghan civil war which would create more space for militant groups like the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) bent on overthrowing the Pakistani state. But nor does it want a strong Afghan army, backed up by long-term U.S. bases, that could pose a threat to itself.

The United States, meanwhile, appears to be banking on the slow and bumpy transition to democracy in Pakistan that has, over nearly five years, been weaning some power away from the military, and could eventually allow Pakistanis to assert their authority over the militant groups which have dug deep into its heartland.  But crucially, U.S. leverage over the Pakistan Army, including in seeking a settlement in Afghanistan,  depends on military rather than civilian aid.

It is, and always has been, a bundle of contradictions.  It is not impossible to imagine Pakistan and Afghanistan as pluralist democracies tied together with India through trade and transit routes and where all three have economic stakes in maintaining stability.  Nor is it impossible to imagine the more likely scenario of a piecemeal settlement in Afghanistan which aims to keep civil war at bay, while reducing U.S. dependence on Pakistan once most of its troops are out.  The withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan will end the incentive for a “nationalist” Afghan insurgency against occupation;  it is highly debatable whether the more globally minded militants in Pakistan will respond the same way.  But there is a need for clarity on the overall strategy. Otherwise, in what many in the United States would prefer to consider a forgotten war, it will be left to the military to make the decisions about troop numbers; and to the people of the region to grow increasingly resentful of the U.S. presence.


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Quote – “It is, and always has been, a bundle of contradictions.” unquote

– Dear Author, there is no contradiction …. US policies of enabling Pakistan’s disfunction is deliberate and premeditated. The usefulness of such policy lies in dealing with India, an emerging power.

Regardless of the American drum beating about “friendship with India as the most important event of this century” , the reality is, there is no love lost between the US and India.

The Americans are playing a dirty game, with their policies towards Pakistan, unethical and immoral ….. India is obliged to respond in kind ….

Posted by Neel123 | Report as abusive

Karzai is traitor and Slave of Saudi Arabia and puppet of Pakistan and he is Brother to Taliban and they are from same tribe as Pashton.
Karzai is a Sneak and he is responsible for 99% of crimes in Afghanistan, just for to keep his tribe in power.
Pashton tribe is # 1 Fascist in the world and hold the with the help and being Slaves of these country like RUSSIA, SAUDI ARABIA, ENGLAND and PAKISTAN for the last 270 years and they did every thing to not lost the power, even they killed their FATHER, BROTHERS, COUSINS and lots INNOCENTS NONE PASHTON PEOPLE to be the KING ……. Is true & fact …!!!!
G. W. Bush & Dick made huge mistake and betrayed NORTHERN ALLIANCES ( N. A. ) when they help Bush ( USA ) in 2001 to beat the Taliban in one month and they should hold the powers, but instead BUSH fooled by Pakistan & Saudi Arabia and appointed Karzai another Taliban and he work for Taliban and they are same Tribes as Pashton and Karzai always calling Taliban as his brothers, but Taliban are #1 enemy of none Pashton people in Afghanistan and they are not human being and should be whip out from the face of the Earth.

Posted by davidap | Report as abusive

Never be a long war, if USA do the right thing and take the power from PASHTON tribe and HELPING NONE PASHTON ( Northern Alliances ) to be in power, because they are the one should had the power in 2001, because they help USA to beat the Taliban in one month, otherwise was not that easy for USA, also they are #1 enemy of Taliban and they will get rid of them in 3 months, beside TALIBAN ARE NOT HUMAN and KARZAI’S BROTHERS, BECAUSE KARZAI CAN’T SURVIVE IN 3 MONTHS WITH OUT HELP OF SAUDI ARABIA, PAKISTAN & TALIBAN …… !!!!
I’m not sure why USA don’t do that ???? IS POLITIC OR WHAT ???
KARZAI is a TRAITOR, SLAVE OF SAUDI & TALIBAN and PUPPET OF PAKISTAN and nothing he did for the last 11 years, and he killed one by one the none Pashton people and he was behind burned QURAN in Bagram, and most of crimes in Northern of Afghanistan !!!!

Posted by davidap | Report as abusive

Let me show you a page from the history of Afghans. The talbans shall take over the control over the entire Afghanistan as soon as the foreign troops leave. Mr Karzai or his follower shall be allowed to administer the affairs with the foreign Govts. from Kabul and the consulates in selected countries.

This is my educated guess and I am prepared to bet with two cents.

Rex Minor

Posted by pakistan | Report as abusive

A Long War : That IS the Strategy. COIN in a nutshell. Else one would not ignore the desire to throw out foreign invaders and their puppets by calling Resistance ‘insurrection’ rather than the natural desire of people to design their own destiny free of the robbery of colonialism.

Posted by opit | Report as abusive

I’d say people should be less worried about Afghanistan and more worried about Pakistan.

WRT Pakistan’s competition with India. They’ll be toast if they try to keep up. All India has to do to break Pakistan is pull a Reagan, ramp up defence spending and increase aid to Afghanistan severalfold. Pakistan will bankrupt themselves trying to keep up.

I think the Pakistanis are smarter than that. But then again, from time to time they prove me wrong.

Posted by kEiThZ | Report as abusive

Dear Myra MacDonald,

All afghans appreciate your outstanding article about Durand line. Why?

Its based on facts!

The best solution to terrorism is to divide Pakistan on basis of tribes.

1. Most Punjabis wants to be with their brothers and sisters in Indian Punjab. So it should become part of India. They share 99% of their culture with punjabis of India and share nothing with Arabs, except religion. Even a good non-arab muslim is treated as slave in Arab countries.

2. Sindh, Balochistan should become separate states.
3. Pashtonkhwa should become a state or join Afghanistan.

As a result their would be no tribal areas, no Place for Pakistani ISI to train and hide terrorists.

Since creation of Pakistan, it attacked India 3 times. Attacked Indian parliament and Taj mahal hotel attacks.
With out misusing religion, Pakistani army has no reason to exist!

2. People of Pakistan are hostages of Pakistani generals.
3. Solving Duran line issue means, solving Terrorism and avoiding another 9/11 and 7/7 like attacks.

Posted by W.Wardak | Report as abusive