Reality Checking Obama on Afghanistan: Five Questions on Ending the War

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President Barack Obama speaks to troops from the U.S. Army 10th Mountain Division in a dining hall at Fort Drum June 23, 2011 in Fort Drum, New York. (Photo: Mario Tama / Getty Images)

First, credit where it’s due: President Barack Obama has burst the spin bubble by telling Americans that the U.S. military has largely achieved that which can be achieved militarily in Afghanistan, and by admitting that the Taliban will be part of Afghanistan’s political future. He’s also ditched the notion of a “conditions-based withdrawal”, recognizing that it’s a trap that would require effectively making Afghanistan a permanent U.S. military protectorate.

Still, having signaled an intent to cut bait on a war that will continue for the next three years, Obama has left himself with some more complex and challenging questions to answer:

1. What will Obama tell the loved ones of Americans killed in Afghanistan in the next three years?

President Obama wouldn’t call going into Afghanistan to get al-Qaeda a mistake, but he clearly sees the mission’s original nation-building goals as tragically misguided. So, on Wednesday, he narrowed down the U.S. objectives to that which is achievable in the very near term: “No safe-haven from which al-Qaida or its affiliates can launch attacks against our homeland, or our allies.” He added, “We will not try to make Afghanistan a perfect place. We will not police its streets or patrol its mountains indefinitely. That is the responsibility of the Afghan government,” starting in 2014.

The goal defined by President Obama has largely been achieved. Bringing peace to Afghanistan, now, will require a political settlement that will include the Taliban, he explained.

But admitting that the war is in its terminal phase and that the Taliban can’t be destroyed poses new questions for the morale and focus of the fight going forward. American troops are risking life and limb in a fight that has largely become a matter of shaping the terms of a political settlement with the enemy.

2. How does the U.S. persuade Afghan civilians or neighboring countries to do its bidding when it acknowledges its presence is temporary?

The military has long warned that when Washington puts a withdrawal date on an expeditionary mission, the enemy’s confidence is boosted — and he becomes a lot more persuasive to the local population, who’re never going to put their faith in a force that has signaled its intent to leave. In the Pashtun areas of southern Afghanistan whence the Taliban draws most of its support, it’s hard to persuade civilians to support a war effort against an entity that will, as a result of any political settlement, likely find itself in charge of local government.

But the hawks may be overstating the danger of signaling the intent to leave – President Obama could have said the U.S. plans to stay for 25 years, but the insurgents and their backers know better. The difficulties facing America in maintaining open-ended military commitments abroad are plain to see.

Still, there’s no question that U.S. leverage is dramatically diminished by its intent to depart — Iraq over the past three years has been a clear example of the same phenomenon. The Taliban, Pakistan and other local stakeholders will simply wait out the Americans. But while the Pentagon is correct in warning that removing more troops poses a greater risk to the gains made in southern Afghanistan, Obama has recognized that this argument will always be true given the circumstances in Afghanistan: changing the equation would require a generational commitment of large numbers of troops to a counterinsurgency mission untenable for the U.S. There’s no reason to believe that the basic political and regional political equation that keeps the Taliban coming back — and the government failing to win over the civilian population in the war zone — will be changed by another two or three or five years of combat. Indeed, the increasingly hostile posturing of the Karzai government suggests that it, too, is already trying to position itself for a post-U.S. era.

As much as Washington would like to shape the political settlement that it leaves behind, its leverage over key players within and around Afghanistan is likely to plummet sharply in the months and years ahead.

3. What are the terms for peace with the Taliban?

“We do know that peace cannot come to a land that has known so much war without a political settlement,” Obama said in his speech. “So as we strengthen the Afghan government and Security Forces, America will join initiatives that reconcile the Afghan people, including the Taliban. Our position on these talks is clear: they must be led by the Afghan government, and those who want to be a part of a peaceful Afghanistan must break from al-Qaida, abandon violence, and abide by the Afghan Constitution.”

Once, U.S. officials had stated those principles as preconditions for negotiation, but have more recently stated them as the minimum outcome of any peace process. Insistence that the Afghan government rather than the U.S. do the talking may be hard to sustain as an absolute demand if the Taliban see things differently — is Washington really going to avoid serious negotiations with the insurgents if they insist on first talking to the Americans?

Laying down arms is obviously the goal of any peace process, while breaking with al-Qaeda and denying it a base from which to attack other countries is a requirement well understood and reportedly accepted by the Taliban leadership. But demanding that the Taliban accept the Afghan constitution as a basis for peace may be a tall order. The movement had no say in shaping that constitution, which was drawn up following the Western invasion of Afghanistan, and the Taliban is unlikely to accept its a priori legitimacy. Demanding fealty to the constitution is a condition that can be set for Taliban surrendering and accepting amnesty — although not that many have accepted that offer. But the reality is that the balance of forces on the ground suggest the current political order is hardly intractable. The last elections held under the constitution saw only one in three eligible Afghans turn out to vote.

The constitution’s strong protections for civil liberties and women’s rights give make it a key issue for many Afghan groups, and also for preserving the moral objective of the U.S. war effort. But unless the Taliban are defeated militarily (which appears unlikely) a political solution to the conflict will require negotiating a new national consensus — which includes those excluded from the creation of the current constitution. A political solution through greater power sharing may, in fact, require devolving power from the capital — whose authority over the regions now, and historically, has always been more notional than actual. But the Afghan constitution currently concentrates power in the presidency.

4. Is this a war for (or against) Pakistan?

Some have suggested that the primary strategic purpose for maintaining a major U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan is as a hedge against Pakistan’s accelerating drift away from Washington’s strategic orbit. But that could be dangerous reasoning.

“Of course, our efforts must also address terrorist safe-havens in Pakistan,” said President Obama in his speech. “No country is more endangered by the presence of violent extremists, which is why we will continue to press Pakistan to expand its participation in securing a more peaceful future for this war-torn region. We will work with the Pakistani government to root out the cancer of violent extremism, and we will insist that it keep its commitments.”

Spinning in support of his President, Senator Kerry told the Washington Post that Pakistan “is where almost all the mischief comes from. If we can change that equation… that is the best opportunity to protect what we have gained in Afghanistan.”

But the imbroglio that followed the raid on Bin Laden was a stark reminder that Pakistan’s strategic establishment sees matters very differently. It views Afghanistan through the prism of its long-term conflict with India, in which the Taliban is an ally and the Northern Alliance on which Karzai’s government is based is an adversary, while the United States is seen as a temporary presence that must be tolerated and indulged, even though it is deemed to be the key factor driving the upsurge in militancy inside Pakistan over the past decade. Obama may talk of pressing Pakistan to do more, but the aftermath of the Bin Laden raid made clear that the survival of the most important man in Pakistan, Army chief Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani, depends on his doing less, distancing himself from the U.S. in the face of growing hostility within his own ranks.

Pakistan supports the Afghan insurgency on the basis of its own perception of its national interests, which no amount of US persuasion, cajoling and threats have altered.

Basing a strategy on the assumption that Pakistan can be pressed to change its ways is to deny the evidence of the past decade. It’s not going to happen. And to the extent that the U.S. is perceived to be pressing Pakistan, Pakistan will be more inclined to escalate its support for the Afghan insurgency and further distance itself from the U.S. And that’s bad news for Washington, because the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan needs even the limited support Pakistan is willing to offer — for logistical reasons if no other. That, and delivering the Taliban leadership for any peace process make Pakistan’s cooperation essential. But right now, Pakistan is not in a cooperative mood, and if it perceives itself to be becoming the focus of the U.S. mission, its resistance to the U.S. agenda is likely to escalate.

5. Does the U.S. seek a long-term military presence in Afghanistan?

Everything from its anxieties over Pakistan and its conflict with Iran to its strategic rivalry with China for influence in Central Asia prompts Washington to seek permanent military bases in Afghanistan. And that’s exactly what the U.S. is reportedly seeking
in the “strategic partnership agreement” with the Karzai government, that would shape long-term cooperation beyond the 2014 troop withdrawal deadline set by NATO.

Needless to say, Pakistan is extremely hostile to the idea, and so would China be. More importantly, perhaps, the demand misses the major organizing principle of the Taliban insurgency: The desire, widely shared in Afghanistan, to rid the country of foreign troops. The reason for the Taliban’s revival after it was scattered by the U.S.-led invasion is not some deep-seated desire among Afghans to restore the movement’s brutal version of Shariah law; it was that the country was occupied by foreign armies, backing up corrupt and self-serving Afghan authorities from a local to a national level.

For the Taliban, the basic precondition for a political settlement is that all foreign forces would leave Afghanistan. Negotiating a long-term agreement that suggests otherwise is likely to discourage the Taliban from dealing, and also to create an incentive for all those regional forces — including Pakistan — who would prefer to see the U.S. leave Afghanistan altogether to help the Taliban achieve that aim.

An agreement on a long-term military presence with a government whose own standing will come increasingly into question in any political settlement may simply diminish the chance of a political settlement.

If the conflict is to be settled at the negotiating table, the outcome is unlikely to be one in which the U.S. maintains a permanent military footprint for its own purposes on Afghan soil.