America Must Fight for an Afghan Exit

Financial Times | February 1, 2009


It is certain that as one of its first actions, President Barack Obama’s administration will approve a military “surge” in Afghanistan come the spring. The question that needs to be decided is: a surge for what? On the answer will depend in large part the success or failure of the administration in the “war on terror” as a whole.

This is less because of Afghanistan itself than because of the impact on neighboring Pakistan – a country of critical importance to global security, where extremism is being gravely worsened by the war on its borders and the demands being placed on it by Washington.

If the Obama administration’s goal in the surge is to buy some more time for a continuation of existing policies, then the Taliban will simply bury their weapons, melt into the population and across the border into Pakistan and lie low until US forces pull back to their bases. Thirty thousand more soldiers can certainly drive the Taliban underground for a while but they are not remotely enough to garrison their strongholds permanently.

If the surge does achieve significant temporary success, will this be used to enable the US to go through with presidential elections in Afghanistan this August?

As many US officials and soldiers recognize in private, there would be something profoundly odd about Washington risking a bloody disaster only in order to re-elect Hamid Karzai’s administration, in which most Afghans and westerners have long since lost all confidence.

The usual response to this argument is that Washington cannot find anyone to replace Mr. Karzai. This is true but what it reflects is the fact that the failure of the Afghan state since 2001 has been due not so much to the personal failings of Mr. Karzai and his followers as to profound factors in Afghanistan that make the creation of a modern state across the whole country virtually impossible under any leader.

Instead of dreaming of a new strongman, the Obama administration should use the military surge to buy time for a different plan altogether. This should begin with the calling of a new Afghan national assembly, or Loyah Jirga, in order to change the Afghan constitution.

This change should include the suspension or abolition of the executive presidency in favor of a prime ministerial system, with a cabinet composed of non-political technocrats; a law allowing political parties to put up candidates for parliament; and on this basis, the legitimation of political forces representing the Taliban, which, as with Sinn Féin in Northern Ireland, can then be used to open serious negotiations with the Taliban leadership.

In the long run, the aim should be a radically decentralized Afghanistan in which the Taliban can be permitted to take over much of the country in return for a guarantee – under threat of aerial bombardment – not to give shelter to terrorists.

In the short to medium term, just as in Northern Ireland, the war should continue in order to put pressure on the Taliban to compromise, and in order further to harass and weaken al-Qaeda.

To pursue any successful US strategy will, however, also require a definitive answer to a second important question: Is the surge intended to allow the US to leave Afghanistan with honor and limited success, as is President Obama’s stated intention in the case of Iraq? Or is the plan to establish a permanent US military presence in the country?

If the latter, then there will never be peace because, as long as US troops remain in Afghanistan, Pashtuns will be found to attack them and anyone allied to them. This has been the pattern of Pashtun history ever since the British showed up in the region more than 150 years ago. Furthermore, many of the even more numerous Pashtuns of Pakistan are now also committed to this struggle.

If, however, the Obama administration does intend to leave Afghanistan completely, then it should announce this publicly. The prior withdrawal of American forces has been set by the Taliban as a precondition of negotiations but it seems possible that, in certain circumstances, they would in fact accept a formal guarantee to leave by a fixed date not too far in the future.

All this will not be easy for the US to swallow. The leaders of the new administration, however, need to ask themselves whether, given Afghan realities, there is really a reasonable chance that 10 years and tens of thousands of deaths from now, a continued US military campaign will be any nearer to creating a successful Afghan state than it is today; and what appalling damage may have been done to Pakistan in the meantime.

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