Escaping Afghanistan, the graveyard of empires

by Brahma Chellaney

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 enemy.

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 2002.

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 dismissed.

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.