Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author, most recently, of Water, Peace and War.
Afghanistan’s presidential election, now apparently headed for a runoff stage, will mark the first peaceful transition of power in the history of that unfortunate country, ravaged by endless war since 1979. Displaying courage in the face of adversity, Afghans braved Taliban attacks and threats to vote in large numbers on April 5.
After almost 35 years of bloodletting, Afghans are desperate for peace. President Hamid Karzai’s successor will have his work cut out for him, including promoting national reconciliation by building bridges among the country’s disparate ethnic and political groups; strengthening the fledgling, multiethnic national army; and ensuring free and fair parliamentary elections next year.
The role of external players, however, overshadows these internal dynamics. Two external factors will significantly influence Afghanistan’s political and security transition: the likely post-2014 role of U.S.-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces; and interference by Pakistan, which still harbours militant sanctuaries and the command-and-control structure for Afghan insurgency.
Pakistani interference in Afghanistan’s internal affairs can only be made to stop if U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration finally makes that a condition for continuing its generous aid to cash-strapped Pakistan – a remote prospect.
Mr. Obama, meanwhile, has made a U-turn on the U.S. and NATO military presence in Afghanistan and is now seeking bases there for a virtually unlimited period. He had declared in Cairo in 2009, “We do not want to keep our troops in Afghanistan. We seek no military bases there.” But in a change of heart, he now wants bases there to house a fairly sizable U.S.-led NATO force armed with the authority to “conduct combat operations.”
The U.S. President is under political attack at home for having failed to persuade Mr. Karzai to sign a bilateral security agreement, which is to provide the legal basis for keeping U.S. bases. The fact that the U.S. left no residual forces in Iraq when it ended its decade-long occupation of that country has made the appeal particularly strong to maintain bases in Afghanistan, where America is seeking to terminate the longest war in its history.
Although Kabul and Washington have finalized the terms of the bilateral agreement, Mr. Karzai withstood intense U.S. pressure to sign, leaving that critical decision to his successor. In truth, Mr. Karzai was afraid that if he did, he could go down in Afghan history as the second Shah Shuja. A puppet ruler installed by the British in 1839, Shah Shuja was deposed and assassinated three years later, but not before precipitating the First Anglo-Afghan War.
Mr. Obama now has little choice but to wait and try to persuade the next Afghan president to sign the accord. He has not, however, grasped the main reason why his county’s war has foundered – failure to reconcile military and political objectives. From the time it invaded in 2001, America pursued a military surge in Afghanistan, but an aid surge to the next-door country harbouring terrorist havens and the “Quetta Shura,” as the Afghan Taliban leadership there is known. The war was made unwinnable by Washington’s own refusal to target Pakistan for actively abetting elements killing or maiming U.S. troops.
Terrorism and insurgency have never been defeated in any country without choking transboundary sustenance and support. Afghans have borne the brunt from two fronts – U.S. military intervention and Pakistan’s use of surrogate militias.
Mr. Obama’s basing strategy could presage a shift from a full-fledged war to a low-intensity war, but without fixing the incongruous duality in American policy. Indeed, a smaller U.S. force in Afghanistan would only increase Washington’s imperative to mollycoddle Pakistani generals and cut a deal with the Quetta Shura in order to secure its bases.
Washington plans to gift Pakistan its surplus military hardware in Afghanistan, including several hundred mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles. It has also agreed to taper off drone strikes in Pakistan.
Even more revealing is what the drones have not targeted. To preserve the option of reaching a Faustian bargain with the Afghan Taliban, the U.S. has not carried out a single air, drone or ground attack against its leadership, which is ensconced in Pakistan’s sprawling Baluchistan province. U.S. drone strikes have been restricted to the Pakistani tribal region to the north, Waziristan, where they have targeted the Pakistani Taliban – the nemesis of the Pakistani military.
To make matters worse, the U.S. plans to start significantly cutting aid to Kabul beginning next year, which threatens to undermine Afghan security forces, a key part of keeping the Afghan Taliban at bay.
Last May, Mr. Obama recalled the warning of James Madison, America’s fourth president: that “no nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.” Yet he now seeks a long-term military engagement in Afghanistan, which is good news for the Pakistani generals but not for U.S., Afghan or regional interests.
Admittedly, there are no good options. But an indefinite role for foreign forces would be the equivalent of administering the same medicine that has seriously worsened the patient’s condition.
It is past time for Afghanistan to be in charge of its own security and destiny. Outside assistance should be limited to strengthening the Kabul government’s hand.
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