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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