Afghanistan: Avoiding Default

afghanistan-war-withdrawal-timetable-timeline-planBarack Obama won the presidency in 2008 in part because of his pledge to end the war in Iraq and shift the Pentagon’s attention to Afghanistan. He has won a second term in part by promising to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan – as quickly and as securely as possible.

There have been no “mission accomplished” moments with Afghanistan. An economic crisis at home, a failure to accomplish key military metrics in Afghanistan, an increase in “green on blue” attacks,a consensus among the allied forces to withdraw and leave no troops behind, a sea change in U.S. public opinion, an uncomfortable alliance with the government in Kabul, a worsening relationship with Pakistan, and a shift in U.S. geopolitical orientation toward the Pacific have all contributed to reducing the space that Afghanistan occupies on the agenda of U.S. policymakers.

Although most Washington policymakers would simply prefer that Afghanistan disappear, they must still come up with a politically palatable solution regarding U.S. involvement. From the perspective of the Obama administration, the challenge for the next two years is to accomplish U.S. troop withdrawal, leave behind a small “advisory” force that largely focuses on counter-terrorism, keep a more-or-less democratic government in power in Kabul, and ensure that the majority of civil society gains remain in place. Moreover, the administration appears to be strongly committed to drone attacks against various adversaries, a tactic that has strong support from the U.S. public. There is bipartisan consensus in Washington around these goals, though differences of opinion still exist over the timetable, the scale of U.S. security commitments after withdrawal, and the level of development assistance.

This consensus has moved in the direction of withdrawing sooner rather than later. On the liberal side, The New York Times published a long editorial in mid-October arguing that “prolonging the war will only do more harm.” On the conservative side, Florida Republican Bill Young, who was once a major booster of the war, abruptly changed sides in September. His about-face reflects a larger sea change among Republican voters, who have shifted in favor of more rapid withdrawal. If anything, the scandal surrounding General David Petraeus has hastened the rush to the exits.

This consensus, however, does not currently extend to the question of negotiations with the Taliban. The Republican leadership in the House sided with the Pentagon in blocking a proposed prisoner exchange in August 2012 that might have led to more wide-ranging negotiations. The Republicans will likely continue to look at such bilateral discussions with a skeptical eye. Influenced by its “tea party” faction, the Republicans have also had doubts about investing money in any effort in Afghanistan that resembles “nation-building.” The Pentagon, meanwhile, has continued to emphasize military solutions over diplomatic and economic ones.

It has become conventional wisdom in the United States that the Taliban will not negotiate seriously until the U.S. troop withdrawal. What hasn’t become conventional wisdom, but should, is that the Taliban will not likely—either then or now—accept such preconditions as a renunciation of violence, which is tantamount to surrender. It has also become a common argument that the United States missed its opportunity to negotiate either just before Obama’s “surge” or just after. In the first case, negotiations would have gone forward under the threat of significant military force. In the second case, Washington would have presumably negotiated from a position of greater strength, not unlike the strategy that Richard Holbrooke pursued, with the help of NATO and the Croatian army, in the lead up to the Dayton Accords.

In short, Washington policymakers and politicians, except for those tasked within the State Department and Pentagon to focus exclusively on the war and post-conflict development, are eager to forget about Afghanistan and move on to other crises and opportunities. As the number of al-Qaeda operatives inside the country has fallen to double digits, Afghanistan has become less a national security issue than a regional problem (though the Pentagon has resisted this narrative).

The waning prominence of Afghanistan on the agendas of U.S. policymakers and in the headlines of the media is not necessarily a bad thing. It may in the end boost the prospects for a negotiated settlement, either because it allows committed U.S. officials to pursue certain strategies outside the political and media limelight or because it creates a political opportunity for other countries and institutions to strengthen their capability as mediators.

Here, I will evaluate three different scenarios that might take place between now and 2014. The first is Pentagon-led, the second is State Department-led, and the third is region-led. They are not entirely distinct scenarios, because elements of each may in fact coexist. But they provide a useful way of understanding the different policy trajectories that Washington policymakers are considering as part of their exit strategy.

The Wait-and-See Scenario

Given domestic resistance, the Obama administration may decide not to invest any significant political capital in negotiations with the Taliban and focus instead on executing the troop withdrawals and maintaining a bilateral security relationship with Kabul. It will continue to provide assistance, though this will likely be reduced to no more than $5 billion annually. It will still try to bolster the security forces and strengthen political institutions, but this state-building effort will be at a substantially reduced financial level. It will maintain U.S. bases to conduct counterterrorism operations through the use of drones, air power, and Special Ops. The counterinsurgency effort, meanwhile, will wither away.

In this wait-and-see scenario, the Pentagon will be the lead player, just as it was during the period before the “surge.” The U.S. military is determined that if they can’t call the Afghanistan operation a clear-cut “win,” at least it won’t go down in history as a “loss.” What happens after 2014, when most U.S. troops are gone, the Pentagon can then effectively blame on the Afghans themselves.

In this scenario, the Taliban remains the enemy, not just al-Qaeda, though the Pentagon prefers to focus on the latter in its statements. In the absence of boots on the ground, drones will play a more prominent role. The number of drone attacks in Afghanistan increased to its highest level in 2012, and the CIA has already requested a substantial increase in its arsenal for its own “covert” operations in Pakistan. Those drones will continue to target Taliban leadership, even if such strikes have been shown to be counterproductive for a number of reasons (adverse impact on public opinion, elimination of potential negotiation partners, etc). The Peace and Reintegration program, which has encouraged 5,000 Taliban to lay down their weapons, will continue to attract participants, though it’s likely that most of these “insurgents” did little fighting and were only looking for a good paycheck. As international forces pull out, and the Taliban’s territorial influence spreads, the program will likely have diminishing returns.

Washington also appears willing to preside over the cantonment of Afghanistan in which the Afghan government maintains control over Kabul and several other major cities while the Taliban controls the countryside. An effort will be made to effect a democratic transition in the next Afghan elections. But the U.S. government has generally opted for stability over democracy in similar circumstances, and so will tolerate high levels of corruption and clientelism in order to maintain U.S. influence on Washington’s terms.

There may not be very much active support in Washington outside of the Pentagon for this “wait-and-see” approach. But in the absence of a well thought-out alternative, Washington policymakers will fall back on this default strategy of preserving the status quo.

The Wedge Scenario

In the “wait-and-see” approach, the Taliban and al-Qaeda are generally lumped together as a single adversary arrayed against the Karzai government, coalition forces, and Western civilization. The Taliban in Afghanistan and the Taliban in Pakistan are similarly treated as a single entity. In the more extreme versions, embraced by large sections of the Republican Party for instance, political Islam more generally is a threat to U.S. national interests, whether in the form of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the protest movement in Bahrain, or even the AKP in Turkey.

For the most part, the State Department has a more sophisticated approach to the Muslim world. It favors distinguishing between “good Islamists” and “bad Islamists” and attempting to drive a wedge between them. In the opening gambit in negotiations with the Taliban, for instance, the administration called on the Taliban to sever its connections with al-Qaeda. This can be seen as part of a larger administration strategy that has reached out to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and recognized more generally the popular support that political Islam garners throughout the Muslim world. This strategy is reflected as well in recent international policy, with Taliban figures removed from the UN Sanctions List. UN Security Council resolutions 1988 and 1989 distinguish between Taliban and al-Qaeda.

The noted scholar Gilles Dorronsoro has elaborated this “wedge scenario” in greater detail in a recent report for the Carnegie Endowment. He recommends limiting drone attacks and other counterterrorism efforts to al-Qaeda and similar jihadist groups. He argues that the United States must do whatever it can to drive a wedge between the Taliban and Pakistan. And he recommends that Washington give up on its plans to maintain a significant base presence in the region. Military solutions have failed to dislodge the Taliban; nation-building efforts have failed to create a credible and durable democratic state. The United States should thus focus very narrowly in its military objectives and prepare for the inevitable, namely the Taliban returning to power.

This “wedge scenario” bears a certain family resemblance to geopolitical realism during the Cold War. Nixon’s opening to China, for example, did not occur because the Republican administration believed that Chinese communism was somehow better than other forms of communism. Nor did Nixon and Kissinger anticipate the economic value of rapprochement. Détente with China was designed primarily to drive a wedge between Moscow and Beijing.

In another version of this wedge approach during the Cold War, some Washington policymakers eventually came to distinguish between communists who focused on “socialism within one country” (Yugoslavia, for instance, or Eurocommunists in Italy, or eventually Vietnam) and communists who had global ambitions (the Soviet Union). The first category could be dealt with; the latter had to be opposed, by military force if necessary.

Negotiations with the Taliban have proceeded according to the same assumption. If Taliban leaders renounce their links to radicals that have global aspirations – primarily al-Qaeda – they will be invited into the charmed circled of negotiations. U.S. policymakers will hold their noses concerning what the Taliban will do within Afghanistan (“radical Islam within one country,” so to speak) in an effort to prevent the larger transnational aims of the jihadist movement.

The greatest challenge to the Obama strategy of driving a wedge within political Islam – between those who focus on national strategies and those who champion transnational goals – lies not in the region itself but in Washington. The Republican opposition in Washington remains as unaccommodating toward political Islam as an earlier generation of Cold Warriors was toward communism. The Republican Party has largely lost its Rockefeller wing, with the defeat of key moderates like Richard Lugar at the hands of the tea party. This hardline Republican opposition views Islam, not specifically al-Qaeda, as a global enemy. It refuses to recognize the Muslim Brotherhood, much less the Taliban, as a negotiating partner. Congressional opposition to the initial negotiations with the Taliban over prisoner exchange highlighted this uncompromising stance. In general, American conservatives have expressed considerable outrage at any sign of accommodation with “radical Islam” on the part of the administration. The earlier suggestions that Obama is a secret Muslim have largely become transformed into Obama “acting Muslim” though his engagement with these movements of political Islam.

The success of this strategy, of course, depends on the willingness of the Taliban to renounce al-Qaeda and negotiate in good faith. There is considerable evidence that relations between the Taliban and al-Qaeda are frayed, to the say the least, and the notion that the Taliban will only wait until 2014 to come to the table is also open to question. As Ahmed Rashid has written, “Many Taliban leaders are advocates of a political settlement rather than a bloody power grab for Kabul – because they fear a multi-dimensional civil war after 2014 which they know they cannot win when non-Pashtun groups in northern Afghanistan are now much stronger compared to the late 1990s when the Taliban last wielded power.”

Kitchen Sink Scenario

It is an axiom among conflict resolution specialists that a stalemate can be unlocked by adding more elements to the scope of negotiations. In this case, if the United States and the Taliban are unable to find common interests through bilateral negotiations, it might be possible to find a workable solution by regionalizing the discussions.

The regional approach to negotiating an end to the war in Afghanistan has considerable appeal in the U.S. think tank world, but it has generated only limited interest in policymaking circles. The furthest the administration has gone in this direction is to include Pakistan in its calculations (by creating the Af-Pak geographic designation, by conducting drone operations in the FATA, and by pursuing Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, for example).

With Pakistan, the Obama administration is caught in a dilemma. It is deeply dependent on the country for supply lines to U.S. bases in Afghanistan. It has provided the country with billions of dollars in economic and military support. The United States is desperate to ensure the security of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. And it is incapable of forcing Pakistan to abide by its own statements that it will pursue militants in the border regions and cut ties to extremists in Afghanistan. More precisely, Washington is unable to intervene effectively in the internal politics of Pakistan to ensure a result that is consistently favorable to U.S. interests.

For those who favor a regional approach, swinging Pakistan over is a crucial first step. This, as The New York Times editorial writers argue in a very strongly stated editorial, can be accomplished more easily in the case of rapid withdrawal: “If tens of thousands of American troops were removed from landlocked Afghanistan, that might actually allow the United States to hang tougher with Islamabad.” U.S. troops, dependent on supply routes through Pakistan, would no longer be held as effective hostages to U.S.-Pakistani relations. A decrease in the number of drone attacks in Pakistan – and rumors of a phase-out of attacks altogether – suggests an attempt by Washington to nudge relations with Islamabad in a more positive direction.

A key to this strategy, of course, is for Washington to temper its enthusiasm for its new relationship between Washington and New Delhi. Reducing Indo-Pakistani tensions, however, cannot be accomplished without addressing the Kashmir situation. In the same way that Richard Holbrooke negotiated a side agreement between Greece and Macedonia during the initial talks leading to the Dayton Accords, the Obama administration should use its political capital to restart the Kashmir dialogue. Even modest confidence-building steps in that region would have a positive spillover in terms of lessening the Indo-Pakistani rivalry in Afghanistan.

A second key player in the regional dimension is Iran. Tehran has pledged $1 billion in official assistance to Afghanistan, with $500 million so far provided. But it has also covertly supported the Taliban through training and other assistance. Given its relationships with both sides – and its traditional interest in supporting Afghan Shiites rather than Sunni Pashtuns – Tehran could very well play an important role in regional negotiations.

Regional negotiations must identify common interests and not just bring in additional negotiating partners for the sake of diversity. And indeed there are considerable common interests in the region, which could form the basis of negotiated agreements: on anti-narcotics (which the Russians helped out on in 2010); on counter-terrorism (which appeals to the Chinese); on regional energy development (which appeals to everyone in the region).

U.S. indifference can open up the space for other mediators. The Gulf States, and Qatar specifically, have already stepped forward in this capacity. Saudi Arabia, too, has served as a conduit between Kabul, Washington, and the Taliban, and there are rumors that Saudi Arabia could be a destination for Mullah Omar should the Taliban leader be persuaded to go into exile. Turkey has co-chaired the Regional Working Group initiative and facilitated summit meetings with Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Central Asian states – particularly Tajikistan – also play an important role because of ties to ethnic groups inside Afghanistan. Tajikistan participated in the Russia-led Quadrilateral Summits, the last being held on August 18, 2010.

But the list of potential participants should not be restricted either to countries bordering the dispute or even simply to government representatives. The International Contact Group tasked with resolving the conflict on Mindanao in the Philippines, for example, has involved the United Kingdom, Japan, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia. Importantly, there are no Southeast Asian countries in this group. Two countries – Turkey and Saudi Arabia – were chosen because they are majority Muslim. Also involved in the negotiations are civil society organizations – a regional NGO, a peacebuilding NGO, a mediation NGO, and an international Islamic NGO.

The Philippines example is instructive. Two of the traditional mediators for international conflicts – the United States and the United Nations – are perceived as biased in the Afghan situation. Neighboring countries also have their vested interests in Afghanistan. Bringing in countries that were not involved in the coalition fighting and have no economic or security connections to Afghanistan would raise the confidence level of those participating in negotiations

The inclusion of civil society organizations would not only bring an important level of expertise into the negotiations (mediation, peace-building). It would also allay fears that the gains made in Afghan civil society would be ignored in elite negotiations.

The “kitchen sink” scenario faces the challenge of being unwieldy. India and Pakistan have clashed over Kashmir for decades; U.S.-Iran relations have been explosive since 1979; issues like counter-narcotics have been challenging to resolve on their own terms. Making resolution of the Afghan conflict contingent on progress in any of these realms would seem to be a recipe for disappointment. But it’s important to emphasize that resolution of the crises around Afghan’s borders is not the key element, merely resolve: to address these issues constructively. Greece and Macedonia didn’t ultimately resolve their battle over the latter’s name. But Holbrooke’s diplomatic initiative helped create momentum for the principals (Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia) to sit down in Dayton.

Avoiding Default

We are currently heading toward the first scenario of wait-and-see, although some elements of the wedge scenario and the regional scenario are already in place. The challenge at this point for the United States is for those in the State Department who subscribe to a more nuanced understanding of the contending forces and the regional dimension of the conflict to create a compelling narrative to counter the “cut and run” impulse of Congress and the “stay and fight” impulse of the Pentagon.

The “wedge” scenario has its own drawbacks, not least of which being its resemblance to “divide and conquer” imperial strategies—something critics in the region are sure to pick up on. But from the point of view of peacemaking—and the ultimate success of negotiations with the Taliban—this State Department-led approach has considerable virtues over the Pentagon’s propensity to dig in its heels.

President Obama, given his cautious approach to foreign policy matters, will likely attempt to combine drones and diplomacy. Washington will continue to attempt to negotiate from a position of strength, substituting air attacks for ground forces and fashioning the Afghan military and police into a functioning force. The State Department and the Pentagon will struggle for the upper hand in navigating U.S. policy, but neither alone nor together will they ultimately be able to paper over the fact that the United States will be negotiating from a position of ever-decreasing strength.

Much depends on factors that are currently unknown. The Obama administration will soon be replacing three vital positions – secretary of state, secretary of defense, and head of the CIA. These three figures will play a key role in determining U.S. policy toward Afghanistan. Moreover, all of the key players behind the “surge” – Petraeus, Clinton, Panetta, McCrystal, Holbrooke – are all gone or on the verge of leaving. In other words, there will be no institutional commitment to this military policy for reasons of personal investment.

Another unknown is the state of the economy, both globally and in the United States, and how much this issue will absorb the attention of the president and Congress, not to mention key European and Asian donors.

Finally, there are the “on the ground” factors: the political situation in Kabul, the stability of the Pakistani government, the ongoing crisis in Syria, the off-and-on conflict in Gaza, and so on.

These, however, are some considerations to keep in mind regardless of the personnel in the U.S. government, the state of the global economy, or the vicissitudes of current events.

  • Taliban support is increased considerably by foreign occupation and the corruption of the Karzai government. As the United States withdraws and Karzai’s tenure elapses, Taliban support will drop even as its control of territory increases.
  • Only one precondition makes sense at this point: the Taliban’s renunciation of al-Qaeda. All other preconditions are non-starters. But even this precondition should be set aside if it prevents negotiations. Don’t confuse the goals of negotiations with the ground rules of negotiations.
  • Leave religion out of it – some elements of the Taliban want to negotiate, others don’t, but this has nothing to do with their interpretation, strict or liberal, of the Koran or sharia law. Negotiators should focus on underlying interests: security, participation, economic growth.
  • One of these interests is in creating a fair, functioning government in Kabul that reflects the views of the majority and protects the interests of the minorities. This must be an Afghan-driven process, not a trans-Atlantic import.

In the end, we face a paradoxical situation of the two primary negotiating partners – the Taliban and the United States – seeing support for their respective policies hollowing out. Washington must grapple with diminished power on the ground and considerably less domestic support for involvement. The Taliban will face pressures from drone attacks, attenuated Pakistani support, and challenges from forces on the ground such as the Northern Alliance.

This could be a dangerous situation if the “wait-and-see” scenario holds. But if those who subscribe to the “wedge” scenario succeed in shaping Afghanistan policy in Washington—and the various regional powers converge on a single negotiating framework—we might yet see a negotiated end to the Afghanistan war that doesn’t lead to the kind of chaos that accompanied Soviet withdrawal in 1989.

The author would like to thank Mike Amitay, Adam Cohen, Matthew Hoh, Stephen Miles, and Matt Southworth for sharing their insights during the research for this essay. A version of this paper was presented in Doha at a seminar on U.S.-Taliban Dialogue on November 18, 2012, sponsored by The Forum for Arab and International Relations.

John Feffer is currently an Open Society fellow in Eastern Europe. He is on leave from his position as co-director of Foreign Policy in Focus.