Friday, July 25, 2014
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An Afghan Afghanistan

NEW DELHI – As it braces for its upcoming presidential election, Afghanistan finds itself at another critical juncture, with its unity and territorial integrity at stake after 35 years of relentless war. Can Afghanistan finally escape the cycle of militancy and foreign intervention that has plagued it for more than three decades?

Two key questions are shaping discussions about Afghanistan’s post-2014 trajectory. The first concerns the extent to which Pakistan will interfere in Afghan affairs, such as by aiding and abetting the Afghan Taliban and its main allies, including the Haqqani network and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s militia. This will depend on whether the United States conditions its generous aid to cash-strapped Pakistan on noninterference in Afghanistan.

The second question is whether US-led NATO forces will continue to play any role in Afghanistan. It is no secret that US President Barack Obama wants to maintain an American military presence in the country – a reversal of his declaration in 2009 that the US sought no military bases there.

Indeed, for several months, the US has been involved in painstaking negotiations with the Afghan government to conclude a bilateral security agreement that would enable the US to maintain bases in Afghanistan virtually indefinitely. What was supposed to be an endgame for Afghanistan has turned into a new game over America’s basing strategy.

But, despite having finalized the terms of the agreement, Obama failed to persuade Afghanistan’s outgoing president, Hamid Karzai, to sign it. That means that America’s role in the country can be settled only after the new Afghan president assumes office in May.

And the election’s outcome is far from certain. While all eight Afghan presidential candidates claim to support the security accord, this may offer little comfort to the US, given that most of the candidates have directly opposed US interests in the past – not to mention that several of them are former or current warlords.

Moreover, there remains the question of how a residual American-led force, even if sizable, could make a difference in Afghanistan, given that a much larger force failed to secure a clear victory over the past 13 years. Obama has offered no answer.

Nonetheless, there is strong bipartisan support in the US for maintaining military bases in Afghanistan, as a means of projecting hard power, and the increasingly charged confrontation between the US and Russia over Ukraine has boosted that support considerably. In fact, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice explicitly linked Russia’s actions in Ukraine with “talk of withdrawal from Afghanistan, whether the security situation warrants it or not.”

According to Rice, anything less than a residual force of 10,000 American troops will send the message that the US is not serious about helping to stabilize Afghanistan – a message that would embolden Russian President Vladimir Putin further. What she does not seem to recognize is that America’s deteriorating ties with Russia – a key conduit for US military supplies to Afghanistan – could undercut its basing strategy.

The US is clearly convinced that a continued military presence in Afghanistan is in its interests. But what would it mean for Afghanistan, a country that has long suffered at the hands of homegrown militant groups and foreign forces alike?

Afghanistan has been at war since 1979, when Soviet forces launched a disastrous eight-year military campaign against multinational insurgent groups. That intervention – together with the US and Saudi governments’ provision of arms to Afghanistan’s anti-Soviet guerrillas through Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency – helped spread militancy and terrorism, which the subsequent US military intervention has kept alive. As a result, Afghanistan is now at risk of becoming partitioned along ethnic and tribal lines, with militia- or warlord-controlled enclaves proliferating.

In short, foreign involvement in Afghanistan has so far failed to produce positive results. That is why Afghanistan’s political and security transition would be better served by focusing on three key internal factors:

·         Free and fair elections that are widely viewed as reflecting the will of the Afghan people to chart a peaceful future.

·         The ability of Karzai’s successor to unite disparate ethnic and political groups – a tall order that can be filled only by a credible and widely respected leader.

·         The government’s success in building up Afghanistan’s multi-ethnic security forces.

How next month’s presidential election plays out is crucial. If threats and violence from the Taliban prevent too many Afghans from casting their vote, the legitimacy of the outcome could be questioned, possibly inciting even more turmoil, which Afghanistan’s fledging security forces would struggle to contain.

To be sure, the security forces have, so far, mostly held their ground, deterring assassinations and keeping Kabul largely secure. But they have also failed to make significant gains, and US plans to cut aid will make progress even more difficult. Unable to sustain the current force with reduced aid, the Afghan government will have to try to make it “leaner and meaner.” Whether it will succeed is far from certain.

That only increases the pressure to maintain a foreign military presence, even though it is unlikely to bring peace to Afghanistan. In fact, the risk of becoming locked in a protracted, low-intensity war against militancy and warlordism is likely to outweigh any geopolitical advantages that the US would gain from military bases in the country. After all, the terrorist havens and command-and-control centers for the Afghan insurgency are located in Pakistan – undercutting the US military effort to rout the Afghan Taliban since 2001.

All of this points to a clear conclusion: Afghanistan’s future must finally be put in the hands of Afghans. Outside resources should be devoted to building the governing capacity needed to keep the country united and largely peaceful.

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  1. Commentedj. von Hettlingen

    Mr. Brahma Chellaney asks, "the extent to which Pakistan will interfere in Afghan affairs", given its support to the "Afghan Taliban and its main allies". Buth he hasn't aksed what role India is going to play in Afghanistan, which, for decades, has been the venue of a new "Great Game" played out between the two archenemies India and Pakistan, seeking to gain influence there.
    It is no secret that Pakistan's intelligence, the ISI combats only its home-grown militants of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, who seek to overthrow the government in Islamabad, while supporting groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba that had launched attacks on India and the Haqqani network et al. that focuses on fighting the Nato forces in Afghanistan. The Taliban fighters and Islamist militants enjoy safe haven in the tribal areas of North and South Waziristan, which had in the past been targets of CIA drone strikes. Apart from the Kashmir conflict, Islamabad also accuses India of funnelling arms and money to insurgents in Pakistan's troubled Balochistan region.
    After the fall of the Taliban in 2001, following a US invasion, India moved quickly to regain its strategic depth and clout in Afghanistan, by pledging $1.6 billion to help rebuild the country, making it the sixth largest bilateral donor. Moreover India had also given at least three Airbus planes to Afghanistan's ailing national airline and sent thousands of Indians to work in development projects.
    India's soft-power strategy has been to win the hearts and minds of the Afghans over every sector of the society, which should allow India to gain political advantage and to undercut Pakistan's influence. India's success in Afghanistan stirred up a hornets' nest in Islamabad. That Afghan President Hamid Karzai had lived and studied in India, prompted former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf to openly accuse Karzai of kow-towing to India.
    The question is whether Karzai's successor would continue to cultivate ties with India. Some in Afghanistan haven't forgotten that India had been a staunch ally of the Soviet Union during the Cold war and had supported Moscow's invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. A decade later, India continued to back the Communist-regime of President Najibullah, while Pakistan threw its entire support behind the ethnic Pashtun mujahideen warlords, particularly the Islamist Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who were fighting Soviet troops. So when the Taliban came to power and ended the bloody civil conflict among warlords, India was left without any influence in the country. It ended up backing the Northern Alliance. Pakistan, on the other hand, backed and recognised the pariah Taliban regime.
    The coming presidential election will be a tight race and many Afghans hope that the new president would sign the Bilateral Security Agreement with Washington. It is not right for Mr. Challaney to say that "Obama failed to persuade" Hamid Karzai, to sign the agreement. The mercurial Karzai was the one, who played game with his own country's future.

  2. CommentedHarsh Ray

    Foreign military intervention has made a bad situation worse. Afghanistan stands devastated. Shouldn't this country be allowed to look after its own affairs under an international compact that halts all outside interference, including by the US, NATO and regional powers?

  3. CommentedVelko Simeonov

    There is no "Afghan" Afghanistan, as there is no Afghanistan as an actual country. There is simply a territory that is not claimed by any actual country, inhabited by tribes which might have much in common but do not share a sense of common ethnical background, history or even religious practices even though they are all Muslims. The idea that something at least resembling a normal country will emerge out of that territory is absurd. Most of the government officials cannot even venture out of their offices without dense security. The moment NATO withdraws any small gains that might be identified at present will be eliminated. Even if the US retains forces and bases there, they will be no more able than the Russians to sustain the illusion that there is an actual, credible in international terms government.

  4. CommentedVelko Simeonov

    There is no "Afghan" Afghanistan, as there is no Afghanistan as an actual country. There is simply a territory that is not claimed by any actual country, inhabited by tribes which might have much in common but do not share a sense of common ethnical background, history or even religious practices even though they are all Muslims. The idea that something at least resembling a normal country will emerge out of that territory is absurd. Most of the government officials cannot even venture out of their offices without dense security. The moment NATO withdraws any small gains that might be identified at present will be eliminated. Even if the US retains forces and bases there, they will be no more able than the Russians to sustain the illusion that there is an actual, credible in international terms government.

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