January 23, 2012

Escaping Afghanistan, the graveyard of empires



NEW DELHI — Since coming to office, President Barack Obama has pursued
an Afghan war strategy summed up in just four words: "surge, bribe and
run." The U.S.-led military mission has now entered the "run" part, or
what euphemistically is being called the "transition to 2014" — the
year Obama arbitrarily chose as the deadline to wind down all NATO
combat operations.
The central aim is to cut a deal with the Taliban — even if
Afghanistan and the region pay a heavy price — so that the United
States and its NATO partners exit the "Graveyard of Empires" without
losing face. This effort to withdraw as part of a political settlement
without admitting defeat is being dressed up as a "reconciliation"
process, with Qatar, Germany and Britain getting lead roles to help
facilitate a U.S.-Taliban deal.

Yet what stands out is how little the U.S. has learned from past
mistakes. In some critical respects, it is actually beginning to
repeat past mistakes, whether by creating or funding new local
militias in Afghanistan or striving to cut a deal with the Taliban. As
in the covert war it waged against the nearly nine-year Soviet
military intervention in Afghanistan, so too in the current overt war,
U.S. policy has been driven by short-term considerations, without much
regard for the interests of friends in the wider region.

To be sure, Obama was right to seek an end to this protracted war. But
he blundered by laying out his cards in public and emboldening the

Within weeks of assuming office, Obama publicly declared his intent to
exit Afghanistan, before he even asked his team to work out a
strategy. He quickly moved from the Bush-initiated counterinsurgency
strategy to limited war objectives centered on finding a face-saving
exit. A troop surge that lasted up to 2010 was designed not to
militarily rout the Taliban but to strike a political deal with the
enemy from a position of strength. But even before a deal could be
negotiated, rising U.S. casualties and war fatigue prompted him to
publicly unveil a troop draw down, stretching from 2011 to 2014. If
the surge failed to militarily contain the Taliban, it was largely
because its purpose had been undermined by Obama at the very outset.
A withdrawing power that first announces a phased exit and then
pursues deal-making with the enemy undermines its regional leverage.
It speaks for itself that the sharp deterioration in U.S. ties with
the Pakistani military has occurred in the period after the draw-down
timetable was unveiled. The phased exit has encouraged the Pakistani
generals to play hardball.
Worse, there is still no clear U.S. strategy on how to ensure that the
endgame does not undermine the interests of the free world or further
destabilize the region. It is also unclear whether the U.S. after 2014
will be willing to rely on its air power and special forces to keep
Afghanistan in the hands of a friendly government and army — or
whether it will do what it has just done in Iraq: pull out completely
and wash its hands off the country.

Think of a scenario where Obama had not played his cards in public.
Immediately after coming to office, Obama could have used his
predecessor's diversion of resources to the Iraq war to justify a
troop surge in Afghanistan while exerting full pressure on the
Pakistani generals to tear down insurgent sanctuaries. Had that
happened without the intent to exit being made public, not only would
many Afghan and American lives have been saved, but also the side
desperate for a deal today would have been the Taliban, not the U.S.

The outcome of the current effort to clinch a deal with a resurgent
Taliban is uncertain. Even if a deal materializes and is honored by
the Taliban on the ground, it cannot by itself pacify Afghanistan.

Although Afghanistan historically was designed as a buffer state, it
does not today separate empires and conflicts. Rather, it is the
center of not one but multiple conflicts with cross-border dimensions.
Given Afghanistan's major ethnic and political divides, genuine
national reintegration and reconciliation would make a lot of sense.

However, instead of opening parallel negotiating tracks with all key
actors, with the aim of eventually bringing them together at the same
table, the U.S. is pursuing a single-track approach focused on
achieving a deal with the Taliban. Such is its single-mindedness that
a conscious effort is under way to keep out representatives of the
National Front (formerly Northern Alliance) from even international
conferences on Afghanistan.

In fact, the choice of Doha, Qatar, as the seat of U.S.-Taliban
negotiations has been made with the intent to cut out the
still-skeptical Afghan government and to insulate the Taliban
negotiators from Pakistani and Saudi pressures. The choice also meshes
with U.S. efforts to build Qatar as a major promoter of Western
interests in the Arab world, on the lines of Saudi Arabia.

Just as oil wealth has propelled the Saudi role, gas wealth is driving
the Qatari role — best illustrated by Qatar's military and financial
contributions to regime change in Libya and its current involvement in
fomenting a Sunni insurrection in Alawite-ruled Syria, the last
remaining beacon of secularism in an increasingly Islamist-oriented
Arab world.
Meanwhile, the new U.S. containment push against Iran threatens to
compound the internal situation in Afghanistan. Iran's nuclear program
is a factor behind the new containment drive. But a bigger factor is
the intent not to allow Iran to be the main beneficiary of the end of
U.S. military operations in Iraq and the planned NATO exit from
Afghanistan. Yet, without getting Iran on board, building a stable
Iraq or Afghanistan will be difficult.

In truth, U.S. policy is coming full circle again on the
Pakistan-fathered Afghan Taliban, in whose birth the CIA had played
midwife. President Bill Clinton's administration acquiesced in the
Taliban's ascension to power in Kabul in 1996 and turned a blind eye
as that thuggish militia, in league with Pakistan's Inter-Services
Intelligence, fostered narco-terrorism and swelled the ranks of the
Afghan war alumni waging transnational terrorism. With 9/11, however,
the chickens came home to roost. In declaring war on the Taliban in
October 2001, U.S. policy came full circle.

Now, U.S. policy is coming another full circle on the Taliban in its
frantic search for a deal. This has been underscored by a series of
secret U.S. meetings with the Taliban last year and the current moves
to restart talks in Qatar by meeting the Taliban's demand for the
release of five of its officials who are held at Guantánamo Bay.
Mohammed Tayeb al-Agha, an aide to the one-eyed Taliban chief Mohammad
Omar, has emerged as the Taliban's chief negotiator with Marc
Grossman, America's Afghanistan-Pakistan (Afpak) envoy.

The Qatar-based negotiations serve as another reminder why the U.S.
political leadership has refrained from decapitating the Taliban's top
command-and-control. The U.S. military has had ample opportunities to
eliminate the Taliban's Rahbari Shura, or leadership council, often
called the Quetta Shura because it relocated to the Pakistani city in

Yet, tellingly, the U.S. military has not carried out a single drone,
air or ground strike against the shura. All the U.S. strikes have
occurred farther north in Pakistan's tribal Waziristan region,
although the leadership of the Afghan Taliban or its allied groups
like the Haqqani network and the Hekmatyar band is not holed up there.

The sanctity of existing borders has become a powerful norm in world
politics. Border fixity is seen as essential for peace and stability.
Yet, paradoxically, the norm has allowed the emergence of weak states,
whose internal wars spill over and create wider regional tensions and
insecurities. In other words, a norm intended to build peace and
stability may be creating conditions for greater regional conflict and
instability. This norm is likely to come under challenge in the Afpak
belt, where the dangers of political fragmentation cannot be lightly

When history is written, the legacy of the NATO war in Afghanistan
will mirror the legacy of the U.S. occupation of Iraq — to leave an
ethnically fractured nation. Just as Iraq today stands ethnically
partitioned in a de facto sense, it will be difficult to establish a
government in Kabul post-2014 whose writ runs across Afghanistan.

More important, Afghanistan is not Vietnam. An end to NATO combat
operations will not mean the end of the war because the enemy will
target Western interests wherever they may be. The U.S. hope to
regionally contain terrorism is nothing more than self-delusion. If
anything, this objective promises to keep the Afpak belt as a
festering threat to regional and global security.

Brahma Chellaney is an Asian geostrategist and the author of six books.

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