by Dr. Rajkumar Singh 26 May 2019
The situation on the ground in Afghanistan has only gotten worse in recent months, with escalating violence and an increasingly unstable government. The National Unity Government has been paralyzed by infighting and division ahead of presidential elections scheduled for April 2019. Results from parliamentary elections held in October have still not been announced. Given the level of disorganization, chaos, and violence that plagued those elections, presidential elections would be farcical if held as planned in the spring. Reports that the United States wanted the Afghan government to postpone elections and create an interim government to negotiate peace were met with defiance and outrage in Kabul.
At this critical juncture, withdrawal of U.S. troops may force a reckoning within the Afghan government. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s most pressing concern to date has been re-election rather than peace, and his intransigence has increasingly frustrated the United States and its allies in the international community. At a donor conference in Geneva in late November, Ghani announced his peace plan with a five-year timeframe, conveniently tying peace talks to his next presidential term should he win in April. Ghani’s plan is little more than a strategy to tighten his faltering grip on power, disguised as reconciliation. Also, the Afghan president is facing increasing discontent and open opposition from principal political backers, many of whom oppose or have publicly expressed doubt about talks with the Taliban. Many of these individuals have significantly benefited from the war and U.S. support. They would lose considerable influence and power in any settlement with the Taliban.
If the present Administration of the U.S. is in haste for withdrawal of the remaining U.S. forces without a sound deal, a gradual decline into a new and more vicious phase of civil war is all but guaranteed. In the vacuum created by U.S. disengagement, regional actors such as Pakistan and Russia would throw their support behind Afghan proxies much as they did during the early 1990s.
It is clear that the current U.S. administration does not have the appetite or endurance to see through a political end to the war that would avoid this. Peace will take years of sustained effort. There is an alternative: handing the process over to a third party. The United States could back the establishment of an independent peace process focused on three core areas: Taliban-U.S. dialogue regarding an American drawdown of troops, intra-Afghan discussion on a postwar political settlement, and shoring up support from regional actors. In this case, all parties still seem convinced they can secure the best deal themselves and are likely wary of handing over any part of the process to anyone else. However, any responsible policy choice would tie the United States, the Taliban, and the Afghan government, along with regional actors, to a long-term process that would, hopefully, prioritize the stability of the country and preserve at least some of the gains made over the past 18 years. It is not only the future of Afghanistan at stake but also the security of the region and the United States.
Today the security situation in Afghanistan is worrisome. Amid persistent problems within the Afghan security forces, momentum has been on the Taliban’s side. The Haqqani network, the Islamic State, and other actors have contributed to the deterioration in security. Most detrimentally, Afghanistan’s political system remains in dysfunction. The regional environment has also palpably worsened amid endless frustrations with Pakistan as well as challenges vis-à-vis China, Russia, and Iran.
The principal objective of U.S. policy in Afghanistan since the 9/11 attacks has been to ensure that the country does not become a haven for terrorist groups. Other core U.S. interests in Afghanistan relate to regional stability and international credibility. The United States had principally three options regarding Afghanistan: full military withdrawal, limited counterterrorism engagement, and staying in the country with slightly increased military deployments and intense political engagement. The opportunity the Trump administration chose—staying in Afghanistan with a somewhat increased military capacity—is the least bad option. However, that strategy needs to be firmly coupled with explicit and sustained emphasis on better governance and political processes in Afghanistan and intense U.S. political engagement with Afghan governance issues.
Status as today
Thus, the Trump administration’s announced approach to Afghanistan is not a strategy for victory. Staying on militarily buys the United States hope that eventually, the Taliban may make enough mistakes to undermine its power seriously. On the other, the situation was different about ten years ago when President Barak Obama announced the withdrawal of troops in Afghanistan. Several answers were put forward to the question of why he took such a decision. He had a pledge of redeeming; he sensed the public mood; he heard “bipartisan” opinion in Capitol Hill that the soldiers be brought home; he was about to face an adverse budgetary environment, and he understood that his priority should be to mend the U.S. economy rather than wage wars in foreign lands.
Meanwhile, Afghan opinion was also turning against foreign occupation. On the diplomatic front, too regional allies proved exasperatingly difficult, while European allies got impatient to quit. The regional opinion militates against a long-term U.S. military presence, while the contradictions in intra-regional relationships do not easily lend to negotiations. Unlike his predecessor George William Bush who once said that the U.S. would someday consider a Marshall Plan for Afghanistan, Obama pleaded that this is a time of rising debt and hard economic times at home and he needs to concentrate on rebuilding America.
However, from President Obama’s declaration, it was clear that the U.S. has accepted the Taliban as being a part of the Afghan nation and concluded that it did not threaten America’s homeland security. With the announcement, Obama hoped optimism about the peace process. He estimated that Al-Qaeda is a spent force after Laden and any residual war on terror will be by way of exercising vigilance that it will not raise its head again. Besides this, the biggest challenge in Afghanistan is to end 35 years of civil war, and no peace deal in Afghanistan will stick unless the era of outside interference by its neighbors comes to an end. Only talks among all the Afghan stakeholders and parties, including the Taliban, can do that. The Americans cannot control the outcome, but they should not impede it either.