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The Afghanistan Conundrum

Given Afghanistan's complex web of conflicting interests, separate US and Russian efforts to reach an enduring settlement may not succeed. The five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council may need to reach a consensus among themselves and then implement a resolution aimed at stabilizing the country.

CANBERRA – In January 2018, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani publicly admitted that without American support, his government and the Afghan National Army (ANA) could not last very long. That remains the case today: the government is in disarray, and the ANA is barely holding out against the Taliban-led insurgency.

Yet US President Donald Trump understandably wants to disentangle America, if possible through a political settlement, from what has become an unwinnable war. As such, the Taliban and their supporters have no compelling reason to let the Afghan government and the United States off the hook easily. And given the complex web of conflicting interests in Afghanistan, separate US and Russian efforts to reach an enduring settlement may not succeed.

Afghanistan’s problem is not primarily military. Despite the ANA’s heavy losses (more than 45,000 personnel since mid-2014) and increased insecurity in the country, the army has managed to prevent the Taliban from taking over any major city on a lasting basis. US funding of the ANA to the tune of some $4 billion per year, together with allied operational assistance, has been crucial in this regard.

Rather, the worsening security situation mostly reflects political and regional factors. For starters, Afghanistan has lacked the leadership it needs ever since the US-led intervention, initially under the post-Taliban administration of President Hamid Karzai (2001-2014), and subsequently under Ghani’s current National Unity Government.

The West had hoped that these leaders would strive to nurture national unity, and seek to institutionalize politics instead of personalizing power in the country. Instead, the traditional practice of divide and rule – along ethnic, tribal, linguistic, and cultural lines, and also involving corruption and maladministration – has prevailed. Behind a fig leaf of sham democracy, Afghanistan’s leaders have focused on building personal power and influence at the expense of the national interest.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, Afghan governments since 2001 have been weak and almost entirely dependent on US and allied support. As a result, Afghanistan has been vulnerable to predatory behavior by its neighbors – Pakistan in particular – and to regional rivalries and great-power competition.

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The Afghanistan conflict is now deeply entangled with the India-Pakistan dispute, the Iran-Saudi Arabia rivalry, the Pakistani-Saudi strategic partnership, US-Iranian hostilities, Pakistani-Chinese friendship, periodic Indian-Chinese border tensions, US-Indian camaraderie, and US-Russia competition. Afghanistan has become a zone of conflict within a region of them, each one posing yet another obstacle to a political settlement.

Recent US efforts at reaching a political settlement have so far been unsuccessful. The US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, the Afghan-American Zalmay Khalilzad, who began his peacemaking mission last September, has made little or no headway. Khalilzad has repeatedly claimed progress; in reality, he is struggling to make headway through the Afghan and regional political thicket.

Because of his own controversial involvement in Afghanistan for more than three decades as a self-declared US neoconservative, Khalilzad faces the mistrust of many Afghan leaders, including Ghani, and of governments in the region. He has excluded Iran, one of Afghanistan’s influential neighbors, from his consultation process. And he is viewed with suspicion in Islamabad and Moscow as well, given his past anti-Pakistan views and criticism of Russia’s regional ambitions.

The only concession that Khalilzad has thus far obtained from the Taliban – after meeting its representatives several times in Doha – is that the group will not allow Afghan territory to be used for hostile action against the US and its allies. But that pledge is conditional on the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Afghanistan. And Khalilzad has been unable to persuade the Taliban to recognize the Afghan government as anything other than a US puppet and enter direct negotiations with it.

Meanwhile, Russia has pursued its own peacemaking initiatives for Afghanistan, hosting several multilateral meetings in Moscow since late 2018. Participants have included Taliban representatives, Afghan dignitaries (led by Karzai, who now criticizes the US for failing to bring stability and security to Afghanistan), the country’s immediate neighbors, and India.

The Ghani administration had viewed these Moscow meetings as contrary to its alliance with the US, but nonetheless found it expedient to permit Afghanistan’s ambassador to Russia to attend the most recent gathering in late May. But with the Taliban refusing to agree to a ceasefire, let alone settle other substantive issues, this meeting also produced no tangible results.

Should US and Russian efforts fail to produce a lasting political settlement in Afghanistan, the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council may need to reach a consensus among themselves and then implement a resolution based on Chapter VII of the UN Charter, concerning threats to international peace. The goal would be to prompt Afghanistan’s neighbors to cease proxy involvement in the country in support of rival interests; to facilitate the orderly withdrawal of US and allied forces from the country; and to guarantee Afghanistan’s geopolitical neutrality, from which the country benefited before its current troubles began 40 years ago.

At that point, sufficient help and pressure will be needed to move Afghanistan’s leaders toward achieving a national consensus for their own sake and that of the country. Unfortunately, this may not come soon enough for Afghanistan’s suffering people.

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