The Afghan Muddle

NEW DELHI – Despite some last-minute brinkmanship by Afghan President Hamid Karzai, the United States and Afghanistan seem to have worked out a bilateral security agreement to govern the 8,000-10,000 (mostly American) troops that will remain in Afghanistan from next year. But Afghanistan remains a source of significant uncertainty – and high anxiety – in an already unstable region.

Although the Afghan army has performed surprisingly well this year as it has prepared to assume full responsibility for the country’s security, governments in the region remain deeply skeptical of its ability to resist a resurgent Taliban without the strong support that the US has provided. But the Americans are intent on withdrawal, and no other country is willing to assume the responsibilities that they are relinquishing.

In this context, the fear that Afghanistan will unravel once again risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. In fact, a closer look at various key governments’ approaches to Afghanistan reveals that only the US is maintaining a coherent stance.

Pakistani policy is practically at war with itself. Since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, Pakistan has viewed the country as a source of “strategic depth” in its decades-old enmity with India. As a result, it has been playing both sides of the US-Taliban conflict, permitting US drone strikes against Afghan Taliban leaders hiding in its western provinces but making little effort to confront the Taliban on the ground. This way, the logic went, Pakistan could retain enough influence with the Taliban to secure leverage over Afghanistan’s government.