An Afghan Afghanistan

Read Time:4 Minute, 55 Second DELHI – As it braces for its upcoming presidential election, Afghanistan finds
itself at another critical juncture, with its unity and territorial integrity at
stake after 35 years of relentless war. Can Afghanistan finally escape the cycle of
militancy and foreign intervention that has plagued it for more than three decades?

Two key questions are shaping discussions about Afghanistan’s post-2014 trajectory.
The first concerns the extent to which Pakistan will interfere in Afghan affairs,
such as by aiding and abetting the Afghan Taliban and its main allies, including the
Haqqani network and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s militia. This will depend on whether the
United States conditions its generous aid to cash-strapped Pakistan on
noninterference in Afghanistan.

The second question is whether US-led NATO forces will continue to play any role in
Afghanistan. It is no secret that US President Barack Obama wants to maintain an
American military presence in the country – a reversal of his declaration in 2009
that the US sought no military bases there.

Indeed, for several months, the US has been involved in painstaking negotiations
with the Afghan government to conclude a bilateral security agreement that would
enable the US to maintain bases in Afghanistan virtually indefinitely. What was
supposed to be an endgame for Afghanistan has turned into a new game over America’s
basing strategy.

But, despite having finalized the terms of the agreement, Obama failed to persuade
Afghanistan’s outgoing president, Hamid Karzai, to sign it. That means that
America’s role in the country can be settled only after the new Afghan president
assumes office in May.

And the election’s outcome is far from certain. While all eight Afghan presidential
candidates claim to support the security accord, this may offer little comfort to
the US, given that most of the candidates have directly opposed US interests in the
past – not to mention that several of them are former or current warlords.

Moreover, there remains the question of how a residual American-led force, even if
sizable, could make a difference in Afghanistan, given that a much larger force
failed to secure a clear victory over the past 13 years. Obama has offered no

Nonetheless, there is strong bipartisan support in the US for maintaining military
bases in Afghanistan, as a means of projecting hard power, and the increasingly
charged confrontation between the US and Russia over Ukraine has boosted that
support considerably. In fact, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice explicitly
linked Russia’s actions in Ukraine with “talk of withdrawal from Afghanistan,
whether the security situation warrants it or not.”

According to Rice, anything less than a residual force of 10,000 American troops
will send the message that the US is not serious about helping to stabilize
Afghanistan – a message that would embolden Russian President Vladimir Putin
further. What she does not seem to recognize is that America’s deteriorating ties
with Russia – a key conduit for US military supplies to Afghanistan – could undercut
its basing strategy.

The US is clearly convinced that a continued military presence in Afghanistan is in
its interests. But what would it mean for Afghanistan, a country that has long
suffered at the hands of homegrown militant groups and foreign forces alike?

Afghanistan has been at war since 1979, when Soviet forces launched a disastrous
eight-year military campaign against multinational insurgent groups. That
intervention – together with the US and Saudi governments’ provision of arms to
Afghanistan’s anti-Soviet guerrillas through Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence
agency – helped spread militancy and terrorism, which the subsequent US military
intervention has kept alive. As a result, Afghanistan is now at risk of becoming
partitioned along ethnic and tribal lines, with militia- or warlord-controlled
enclaves proliferating.

In short, foreign involvement in Afghanistan has so far failed to produce positive
results. That is why Afghanistan’s political and security transition would be better
served by focusing on three key internal factors:

· Free and fair elections that are widely viewed as reflecting the will of
the Afghan people to chart a peaceful future.

· The ability of Karzai’s successor to unite disparate ethnic and political
groups – a tall order that can be filled only by a credible and widely respected

· The government’s success in building up Afghanistan’s multi-ethnic
security forces.

How next month’s presidential election plays out is crucial. If threats and violence
from the Taliban prevent too many Afghans from casting their vote, the legitimacy of
the outcome could be questioned, possibly inciting even more turmoil, which
Afghanistan’s fledging security forces would struggle to contain.

To be sure, the security forces have, so far, mostly held their ground, deterring
assassinations and keeping Kabul largely secure. But they have also failed to make
significant gains, and US plans to cut aid will make progress even more difficult.
Unable to sustain the current force with reduced aid, the Afghan government will
have to try to make it “leaner and meaner.” Whether it will succeed is far from

That only increases the pressure to maintain a foreign military presence, even
though it is unlikely to bring peace to Afghanistan. In fact, the risk of becoming
locked in a protracted, low-intensity war against militancy and warlordism is likely
to outweigh any geopolitical advantages that the US would gain from military bases
in the country. After all, the terrorist havens and command-and-control centers for
the Afghan insurgency are located in Pakistan – undercutting the US military effort
to rout the Afghan Taliban since 2001.

All of this points to a clear conclusion: Afghanistan’s future must finally be put
in the hands of Afghans. Outside resources should be devoted to building the
governing capacity needed to keep the country united and largely peaceful.

Brahma Chellaney is Professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Center
for Policy Research.

more: Project Syndicate

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