Getting out of Afghanistan

By Jonathan Power

There is an old Soviet joke from the time of the Red Army attempted occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s: “The past might be unpredictable, but the future is certain”. The Americans and other NATO countries might reflect on this. Obviously the French with their love of word play have and are pulling out their substantial number of troops before the end of the year.

The Taliban are undefeated. They inflict over 80% of the casualties in this war. They protect the lucrative poppy crop and their king, whoever that may be, will reign. As the Taliban have long supposedly said: “The US has the watches, we have the time.”

President Barack Obama has made America’s position clear. A couple of weeks ago he said: “In pursuit of a durable peace America has no designs beyond an end to Al-Qaeda’s safe havens and respect for Afghan sovereignty”. But he knows as you know that Al Qaeda was pretty well wiped off the Afghanistani map ten years ago.

As for sovereignty who is the threat? Not Pakistan which has been politically upended by the war in favour of the influence of its Islamic militants. Not India which has dabbled protectively in Afghani politics but has never been a significant influence. And certainly not other neighbours such as China, Russia and Uzbekistan.

What have the US and NATO achieved? Not much on the social front despite all the talk of roads and schools built, health clinics opened and barriers to girls and women removed. According to the new report of the charity, Save The Children, Afghanistan has moved up from bottom to next to bottom of the league table that measures the worst place in the world to be a mother. (The bottom country is now Niger.)

What statistic could be more damning – and disheartening – than that. So much for General David Petraeus’ doctrine of counter insurgency- of fighting and doing good at the same time.

Sometimes a couple of points of light can brighten up a whole room. So here are my two lamp lights.

First, America went in to dig out Al Qaeda, not to pacify the whole of this country with its deep valleys and high inaccessible mountains that defeated even a larger Soviet army. The goal of the fighting was impossibly enlarged and by the time the US and NATO leaves the war will have lasted three times as long as the First World War, over twice as long as the Second World War and longer than the war in Vietnam. And still the Taliban show little chance of being defeated.

Second, Osama bin Laden is dead, as are many of his senior henchmen. And despite Al-Qaeda’s presence in Yemen, Somalia and its influence in northern Nigeria and Syria, it is shadow of its former self.

If the Afghanis don’t want a Taliban-dominated government they can fight for it themselves. As Zbigniew Brzezinski said to me in an email, the Afghanis must rely less on a national army and more on local defence militias. The US should concentrate on dealing with Pakistan before that country is lost to extremists who might well be infiltrating the nuclear bomb establishment. That is where the real battle is now.

The UN should up its negotiating presence in Afghanistan. No attempt by Washington to engineer a power-sharing agreement will last 3 months beyond the exit day of US and NATO troops. Remember Vietnam where there were high hopes because North Vietnam had committed itself to respecting an independent South Vietnam if the US left. Not long after the Americans departed the Vietcong and the North marched in.

The Security Council should mandate Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon to appoint a high level mutually agreed negotiator. Afghanistan should field a team consisting of President Hamid Karzai and representatives that besides the Taliban include delegates that represent the country’s diverse religious, ethnic and linguistic make up. Karzai does not represent all the people by any means. Any deal that that merely appeases the Taliban would lead to a backlash from the Northern Alliance, Hezb-e Islami and other factions.

The world can only help Afghanistan not subdue it. There is no magic wand that will keep the Taliban from dominating major parts of the country. The Taliban have made it clear that they won’t roll back such important advances as the education of girls.

Once in power, as before when they ruled, they’ll doubtless ban poppy growing and thus cut the largest supply of heroin to Europe. And with a UN-brokered agreement they will feel compelled to further moderate their rule. After all the Taliban will want to see Western investment and aid in their country and they won’t want to provoke an insurgency against themselves. They certainly won’t invite Al-Qaeda back in.

© Copyright: Jonathan Power

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