Strategic Horizons: Planning the Long Game in Afghanistan

Strategic Horizons: Planning the Long Game in Afghanistan
Photo: Taliban insurgents, Puza-i-Eshan, Afghanistan, April 23, 2010 (photo by Wikimedia user isafmedia, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license).
For more than a decade, the United States has poured blood and money into Afghanistan, hoping to turn it into some sort of functioning democracy that could at least keep the Taliban at bay. This project always had a deep tinge of unreality. Few places on earth are less hospitable to accountable governance, robust rule of law, protection of human rights and security provided by the state. The United States and its allies never had a plan to make Afghanistan economically self-sufficient or able to pay for its own security forces. Everyone knew the state would remain a ward of the international community. And it was never clear how the Taliban could be fully defeated given their deep local roots, an endless supply of recruits, a persuasive ideology derived from Afghan tribal traditions and external sanctuary in Pakistan. Yet even without a viable long-range vision, the United States pressed on. As former Defense Secretary Robert Gates put it in his new memoirs, initial victories in Afghanistan were "squandered by mistakes, shortsightedness and conflict in the field as well as in Washington, leading to a long, brutal campaign to avert strategic defeat." As the years passed, Washington's definition of success became smaller and smaller. Now even this flawed and shrunken strategy is collapsing under the pressure of Afghan and American domestic politics. In Afghanistan, the United States and its allies helped design a political system based on a strong presidency. This made sense given the security situation and Afghanistan's unfamiliarity with democracy. But it also means that Afghan President Hamid Karzai can, for reasons no one fully understands, personally derail Washington's long-term plans to support his nation, apparently believing that the United States will back him no matter what he says or does. In reality, the United States is fed up with Karzai's ineptitude, truculence and, increasingly, outright hostility. Many Americans now believe that Afghanistan is a lost cause and are willing to wash their hands of it. Given this, it is time for American political leaders and national security experts to admit that a stable, democratic, unitary Afghanistan is not forthcoming and begin planning the long game. Four post-Karzai scenarios are plausible; each poses different challenges for the United States and would require a different response. Scenario one would be an outright Taliban victory leading to full control of Afghanistan. This is the nightmare used to justify 12-plus years of American involvement. It is improbable since the Taliban have never had much support in northern Afghanistan. But if it were to happen, U.S. policy should be based on whether the Taliban's second attempt at governing would also include support for al-Qaida. If the Taliban were to overtly support terrorist attacks on the United States, Washington should seek a formal declaration of war. The war would not end with another U.S. occupation but with a change in Taliban behavior. Admittedly, conducting the war would be difficult since Pakistan might not provide overflight rights. But it would not be impossible. Even if a Taliban regime did not support transnational terrorism, it would almost certainly commit human rights abuses, particularly against women and Afghans who worked with the United States. Sadly, there would be little the United States could do about that short of offering the Taliban regime assistance in exchange for some degree of moderation, but that would be a very difficult sell to the American people and Congress. Scenario two would be a military coup. There is probably no institution more upset by Karzai's antics than the Afghan military. Its leaders know full well that they need continued American help. Even so, a coup is unlikely because the Afghan military has not evolved into a professional and nationalistic force as in Egypt or Pakistan. Still, if a coup did happen, the United States would have to keep its distance from the new regime but might be able to work out some limited counterterrorism cooperation if the military government dedicated itself to restoring civilian rule. Washington's current arm's length relationship with the Egyptian military might provide a model. Scenario three would be the fragmentation of Afghanistan into multiple states with a rump government in Kabul and a few other large cities. This has been a common pattern in Afghan history. If it happens again, the United States would probably sustain some sort of relationship with the Kabul regime, providing enough assistance to prevent its outright defeat. In all likelihood, repression and drug trafficking would explode in areas outside the control of the national government, whether ruled by the Taliban or local warlords. Kabul would see extensive refugee flows, which would strain the infrastructure and create a festering sore. As in Syria today, Americans would be torn between the desire to address the humanitarian crisis and to avoid renewed entanglement in the Afghan countryside. Scenario four would be the full fragmentation of Afghanistan into warlord enclaves without any remnant of the national government. Think Somalia from 1991 up to about 2004. If the Taliban did not support al-Qaida, the United States would probably avoid a relationship with the warlords other than providing humanitarian assistance. Repression and narcotics production would be pervasive. The key strategic question would be the price that the United States and the rest of the international community would pay to gain access for humanitarian assistance. Would Washington exchange aid, even armaments, for access? Turn a blind eye to drug production? Would it be best to sustain some sort of relationship with the least bad warlords to provide a platform for future involvement? Ultimately, none of these scenarios offer a truly good option for the United States. But it now seems that there never was a truly good option. Whatever Afghanistan's future holds, the primary U.S. interests will be limiting support for transnational terrorism and minimizing humanitarian disasters. What Americans will have to decide is the cost they will bear for these things. Giving aid to the nations surrounding Afghanistan or to Afghan warlords in exchange for access, whether to strike at al-Qaida or address human suffering, will be politically difficult and distasteful. But the chances are good that's what the long game for Afghanistan will entail. Steven Metz is a defense analyst and the author of "Iraq and the Evolution of American Strategy." His weekly WPR column, Strategic Horizons, appears every Wednesday.

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