Monday, November 24, 2014

Exit Afghanistan?

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.

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    1. CommentedCarol Maczinsky

      Intervention is fun and cheap, winning peace is not their militaries prime competence. The United States could remove dictatorships with ease and leave it to the nations to get a better governance andf overcome their civil wars. Just think of Vietnam. they fought in Vietnam, their oppontents won but today the government is getting more and more decent. The US have to chop off the head of a chicken some time to get things going but not take control of a nation. they could remove the extreme governments of Syria, Saudi Arabia and Iran, and exactly that is what they ought to do.

    2. CommentedVivek S

      I believe you read the situation wrong.

      You also have to consider that China now has interests in the region - both in terms of investments in Afghanistan and in preventing any possibility of trouble from the Uighurs in Xinjiang. And, India is better placed economically than in the past.

      The Taliban don't care for Kashmir. They are a warrior tribe who are interested in being hired guns for any cause, but they don't have any passion for Kashmir as such. If someone pays them to fight, they will fight. Its just as simple as that. Nothing more to it. India has a long history of friendship and cultural ties with the Afghans.

      The only question is whether India like China can make an economic commitment in Afghanistan. If they choose to do so, it doesn't matter what Islamabad does. You seem to think that somehow India's action might further antagonize Pakistan. It doesn't matter to Pakistan, whether India does anything or not. Pakistan is going to be anti-India and pro-Taliban even if India does nothing. So, the only choice for India is to make a large commitment. There is no other option. Its disappointing that Jaswant doesn't make this case. This is why India has always failed to lead in the past - for lack of will in the foreign policy department, not for lack of capacity. India is quick to criticize, which is quite easy to do, but absent when its time to do something. Just look at our poor record of responding to terror acts within the country.

    3. CommentedKevin Lim

      All well and good, but the author cannot seriously be suggesting that America should expend its blood and gesture on a conflict that by his own assessment is unwinnable. The author is right to say that the withdrawal will have profound regional implications. It will be incumbent on those regional players, in their own national interests, to resolve that problem, rather that look to the US to do their job for them.

    4. CommentedS.Mahmud Ali

      Mr Singh makes points about Afghanistan's past and present which are difficult to refute. His commentary, does, however, raise even more questions about the country's future than it answers.

      For instance, would it be best to leave the Afghans - Pashtun, Tajik, Uzbek, Hazara and Turkmen - alone to sort out and devise their own future power-relations? Could Afghanistan's neighbours, especially those whose borders are straddled by ethino-linguistic communities, allow that process of internal and endogenous evolution to occur without interference in support of respective, often mutually-exclusive, interests? Or would a partition of this tortured land into cultural-political sub-national entities provide a more pacific (even if immediately more bloody) future? How have the Soviet and US-led military interventions helped Afghanistan's evolution? Can Pakistan, its long-established pro-Pashtun preferences notwithstanding, assist a process of multi-ethnic Afghan state consolidation? Do the tentative indications of Pakistani outreach to the Northern Alliance reflect a strategic reversal of historical practice, or are they a tactical step to tide over immediate concerns? Can India calmly countenance a resurgence of Pakistani activism within Afghanistan? Will Russia?

      In short, will post-2014 Afghanistan be bloodied even more than it otherwise would be, by an Indo-Pakistani proxy campaign for influence?

      Also, how would the US-led failure (Mission cannot be said to have been Accomplished here by any stretch of the imagination) redound on the liberal-democratic order underpinned, in the final analysis, with America's military might?

      Perhaps Mr Singh's colleagues, his fellow-contributors to the Project Syndicate, might wish to help us understand how these questions could be addressed, if not resolved.

    5. CommentedVivek S

      "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"

      Right, so the war was ill-conceived and the neighbors suffered, and if the Taliban returns, India will face disturbing consequences. So, what exactly is India going to do, if anything? If there isn't going to be any leadership by India, then why bother with this article? Everybody knows the facts.

        CommentedKevin Lim

        India's capacity to help resolve the situation is precarious. Its blood feud with Pakistan has been going on for so long, any overture made by India will always be viewed by Islamabad with suspicion as another attempt at encirclement (whether those fears are reasonable is another matter).

        Case in point, the recent visit by Karzai to India to strengthen ties. This will certainly be viewed by Pakistan as detrimental to its interests. So it becomes all the more in Pakistan's interests to support the Taliban. At best the Taliban take back Afghanistan. More likely, the Karzai government will have to make some kind of power-sharing compromise. Either way it torpedos an Afghan-India alliance (since the Taliban will never break bread with the occupiers of Kashmir).