NEW DELHI – In his victory speech to a rapturous crowd in Chicago following his reelection, President Barack Obama affirmed that America’s “decade-long conflict” in Afghanistan will now end. The line was greeted with prolonged applause – and understandably so. In fact, this ill-advised war – launched on the basis of a United Nations Security Council resolution – has been grinding on for 11 years, making it the longest in American history.
At the beginning, the war was aimed at eliminating Al Qaeda, vanquishing the Taliban, and transforming Afghanistan into something resembling a Western-style nation-state. With none of these goals fully achieved, America’s intervention – like every other intervention in Afghanistan’s history – is ending unsatisfactorily.
As the curtain drops, two developments will greatly influence the withdrawal process and the ultimate outcome. The first is the management of the transition to Afghan control, which depends on an orderly withdrawal of American and NATO forces by 2014. The second is the election, also to be held in 2014, of a new Afghan president – a process that needs to permit the United States and its NATO allies to claim plausibly that they are handing the country over to a legitimate government.
For Afghanistan, ravaged by war without respite since the “Saur Revolution” of 1978, the endgame will be even more nerve-wracking. As the US military leaves, it will enter another period of political and strategic uncertainty, after almost a half-century of disorder and civil war.
A previous period of such uncertainty was the spur to Pakistan’s creation of the Taliban, which proceeded to disrupt Afghanistan’s (and Pakistan’s) already-fragile social order. Today, almost three generations of Afghans have lived from birth to adulthood without having known stability and peace. And, as a visiting American scholar/diplomat recently told me in a confidential conversation: “In the US, too, at least a generation of our children, from birth till the age of 15, have seen their country almost continuously at war.”
That is an arresting thought. It is against this bitter backdrop that a new Afghan president will be elected and the withdrawal of forces carried out. Will these two developments bring about a stable peace, or will Afghanistan succumb to instability once more? And what consequences are in store for the US following this war without victory or defeat?
Last May, Obama declared that the US had “turned the tide of war” in Afghanistan, an eerie echo of Richard Nixon’s rhetoric as he withdrew US forces from Vietnam. And, like Vietnam, will the US – exhausted and nearly bankrupted by the effort – see all of its supposed gains evaporate soon after it leaves? After all, Al Qaeda, albeit weakened, remains capable of regenerating inside Afghanistan, where the Taliban remain dominant in the country’s east and south, as well as in neighboring North Waziristan in Pakistan.
Just how weakened America is in the region matters. As the US strategist Daniel Twining has observed: “Over the coming four years, US leadership…will be essential” for “the consolidation of a wide-ranging strategic partnership with India,” as well as for efforts “to prevent Pakistan’s many pathologies…from spilling over in ways that undermine fundamental US (and Indian) interests.”
So where does this leave Afghanistan’s neighbors? Deeply concerned. Our primary aim is the restoration of peace and, if not stability, an acceptable political equilibrium. Even if we did not incur the same costs as the US over the past decade – the hundreds of billions of dollars spent, and the many young people killed or injured – we have paid the price that regional uncertainty always imposes: lost trade, lost growth, refugees, and violence.
In the face of these costs, the overblown and sometimes clearly dishonest claims about the war are an obscenity. This strategically myopic and militarily ill-conceived war was unwinnable from the beginning. As a result, Afghanistan will remain what it was: a violent and ungovernable tribal melange. Indeed, across the region, apprehension is growing that when foreign troops leave, Afghanistan will again descend into civil war, ultimately bringing the Taliban back to power.
That is why “bringing the troops home early” has become the prime objective of Western politicians who are engaged in the region. The West needs to get out before the bloodletting starts again in earnest.
My fear is that we have not seen the last of Al Qaeda or the Taliban. As a neighboring country, India would face disturbing consequences if they returned to power in Afghanistan, as would Iran, which would not sit idly by if sectarian strife intensified and the Shia became targets of a resurgent Taliban.
Other neighbors would also pay a price should the Taliban’s seemingly invariable return turn bloody, however immune they believe they are. China, which has invested billions of dollars in developing Afghanistan’s natural resources –investments protected, ironically, by the US – would be certain to experience greater unrest in Xinjiang Province, home to millions of disaffected Muslims.
But the country that will be most affected is Pakistan, which faces challenges to its territorial and political integrity. The territorial challenge is, no doubt, a mushrooming anxiety; an innocuous remark by an American envoy about the Durand Line, which marks the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, drew sharp retorts from both countries.
Afghanistan’s history of occupation by foreign troops and their eventual withdrawal has been repeated so many times that one wearies of repeating the tale. Yet this history is the litmus test. With the US withdrawal, turmoil is bound to reemerge, and the entire region will again bear the consequences.