No easy path
IS America now only looking for a safe withdrawal from Afghanistan having concluded there is no vital objective to pursue there other than retain a counter-terrorism capability to thwart any terrorist network’s regeneration? Or is Washington interested in working for a political solution to help avert the risk of Afghanistan’s post-2014 descent into chaos and its fallout on regional stability? Does the US have the patience and flexibility needed to forge a negotiated peace? Or will that be left for Afghans to undertake by themselves?
Answers to these questions are pivotal to Afghanistan’s future and to regional peace. They will likely emerge from dynamics on the ground in Afghanistan as well as be determined by how formidable the obstacles are to develop a peace process. The outcome of the American presidential election – just days away – will also clarify the path the next administration will take. For now several strands of thinking are discernible in Washington’s official circles and beyond. The two that are noteworthy are to secure a safe exit above and beyond other goals; and/or seek a negotiated settlement to end the fighting before 2014. These are not of course mutually exclusive.
The presidential debates indicated how firm both candidates are about the 2014 deadline to pull out US combat troops from Afghanistan. This acknowledges the strong anti-war public sentiment in America. The latest Pew poll found 60 percent of Americans want troops removed right away. When the Republican aspirant Mitt Romney declared, “we do not want another Iraq, we don’t want another Afghanistan”, this was aimed to distance him from Bush era policies and signal his commitment to ending the Afghan war.
Vice President Biden’s pronouncement during the October 11 debate was even more instructive. “We are leaving in 2014, period. There are no ifs, ands or buts.... (our) primary objective is almost completed” – a reference to defeating Al-Qaeda. Biden’s view seemed to be the most explicit expression of the first strand of thinking.
There is already informed speculation about an accelerated US troop withdrawal in 2013 if Obama is re-elected. Americanled combat operations are expected to end by mid-2013. An expedited pace of withdrawal will be consistent with this. Absent from the presidential debate and in recent statements by American military commanders is the past emphasis on a “conditions-based withdrawal”. This shift in the US military’s stance may reflect an acceptance of the logic and irreversibility of the 2014 deadline. But it could also be the consequence of the dramatic rise in green-on-blue attacks – Afghan servicemen attacking their American counterparts. This has cast doubt on the post-2014 feasibility of retaining military advisors and a residual force under a yet to be negotiated status of forces agreement with Kabul.
More immediately these “insider” attacks may have dampened the US military’s previous preference for a slower pace of withdrawal. There are signs that the Pentagon’s earlier resistance to a drawdown without military pre-conditions is eroding. This is helping to align civil-military opinion on the issue.
In this backdrop, a New York Times editorial of October 13 gave expression to another emerging view. It urged a schedule of withdrawal on logistical grounds alone. This represented the line of thinking that argues that America’s only objective now in Afghanistan should be a safe exit. This is not of course US policy. But it reflects a point of view that could gain more traction in Washington after the election.
Titled ‘Time to Pack up’, the editorial called for the departure of US forces on a schedule “dictated only by the security of the troops” as “prolonging the war will only do more harm”. Arguing that “nation building in Afghanistan is not working” and even President Obama’s scaled down goals were elusive, America now needed “to exit as soon” as possible. Significantly the editorial did not mention the need for negotiations to find a political end to the war. It only suggested that America should get out earlier than planned.
This is not the official view. It might however foreshadow Washington’s default position if the going gets tough in the coming year, challenges posed by “insider” attacks continue to mount and public support for the Afghan project crumbles.
But there are also strong indications that the Obama administration is interested in exploring the possibility of installing an Afghan peace process ahead of the 2014 political and military transitions. The October visit to Islamabad and Kabul by a team of senior US officials led by Ambassador Marc Grossman was aimed to promote that very objective.
American officials acknowledge the reality that if Afghanistan’s political transition – presidential elections in spring 2014 – does not proceed in a credible and peaceful manner, this could jeopardise an orderly troop withdrawal expected to be completed by December 2014. If the political edifice in Kabul is shaken when Afghan security forces’ capabilities remained uncertain, this could plunge Afghanistan into turmoil ahead of the pullout. For that reason alone some kind of truce or reduction of violence is regarded as necessary. This in turn rests on being able to encourage the Taliban to enter the political process and join peace talks.
If President Obama returns to the White House this line of thinking could urge his administration to accelerate efforts to evolve a serious peace process. There will not be much time for this as the 2014 transition would then barely be 24 months away. There will be an even shorter timeframe to achieve progress in negotiations. At present the military and political transitions are perilously out of sync and efforts to align them in some measure with progress in peace talks seems a daunting challenge. But it remains the only solid foundation on which these transitions and a ‘safe’ withdrawal can reliably rest.