No easy path

The Pak Banker - - Front Page - Dr Maleeha Lodhi

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.

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