Afghanistan: Options for a Responsible End to the War
Report of Seminar held at IPCS on 10 November 2010
Chair: PR Chari, Research Professor, IPCS
Speaker: Dr. David Cortright, Director of Policy Studies, Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, University of Notre Dame
The future in Afghanistan raises many questions. How will the country look after the withdrawal of the United States? Will Afghan President Hamid Karzai negotiate a truce with the Taliban? Will they take over? Or will Afghanistan relapse into a pre-modern state, where most of the territory is dominated by warlords, with a weak government holding nothing but pockets of the country.
More fundamentally, the current situation raises the question of how the Afghanistan of 2011 differs from the one of the 1970s. Earlier, the socioeconomic structure was characterized by a weak central government, but strong tribal leaders. The Taliban have destroyed this traditional structure, and the structure left now has lost its legitimacy. How will the country deal with this situation? These questions concern India very closely.
Since Barack Obama’s election, US troops in Afghanistan have doubled, to almost 100,000. However while casualties are increasing, the influence of the Taliban appears to be growing. There are an estimated 40,000 to 48,000 armed fighters in what Gen. David Petraeus has called an “industrial strength insurgency.” There are good reasons to believe that the limited successes reached so far are superficial. Due to the increase in troops the insurgents have withdrawn from certain areas, but they are waiting for an opportunity to return, and spread to other regions.
Given this situation, many analysts and policymakers believe that this war cannot be won by NATO. They have shifted their focus to counter-insurgency approaches, and are attempting to adapt traditional counter-insurgency approaches to the Afghan context, which faces major obstacles. The biggest problem is the weakness and corruption of the Afghan government. Without viable institutions, counter-insurgency has no chance of succeeding. A political solution appears to be the only viable alternative. The risk of seeing the modest social gains made since 2001 destroyed by the worsening security situation is an argument supporting this view.
In the case of women’s rights, which were presented as a justification for the war, a slight improvement is apparent since 2001. Health care was appalling, rates for maternal mortality were the highest in the world and as were those for child mortality. Massive programmes, supported by huge funding, have had some impact: Vaccination campaigns were launched and thousands of midwives trained. The same holds for education – while the girl child had no access to school before 2001, they now constitute 37 per cent of the total number of schoolchildren. At the economic level, programmes of microfinance have helped to empower women. The Constitution has also been amended to assert women’s equality. The number of female parliamentarians is exceptionally high (25 per cent), and women voted massively in the 2004 elections.
Nevertheless, there is also a backlash. Due to the increasing violence and institutional corruption, the percentage of women who voted in the 2009 elections has gone down. Female politicians have been threatened by the Taliban and other warlords. Hence, the gains are precarious, and have already eroded due to the worsening security situation.
This bespeaks the need for a non-military solution, with progressive withdrawal, and efforts to strengthen the political system. For this strategy to succeed, a number of conditions need to be met. The Taliban should be prevented from seizing power again and some minimum stability should be ensured to avoid state breakdown.
A political agreement is also needed. In this regard, the current talks between the Taliban and Karzai are a significant development. Their outcome is still unclear, but a potential agreement could be along the lines of the Taliban holding power over the regions they hold and being given a few seats in Parliament. It should be possible to retain the Constitution. On this point, statements by Taliban leaders differ, but some have said that they would accept the current Constitution, which would maintain an open society with elections and the division of powers. Whatever their outcome, the talks are a sign of increased flexibility by Mullah Omar and other major leaders.
Pakistan has opposed these negotiations and arrested the Taliban leaders who were going for talks. Therefore, it is not enough for the US to tolerate the talks in Afghanistan; it should also pressure Pakistan into supporting them. As part of this agreement, it will be necessary to get the Taliban to cooperate on eliminating the al Qaeda. The extent of this threat should not be overstated.The CIA estimates that there are only some 100 armed al Qaeda fighters left in Afghanistan, and some 500 in Pakistan. Given these limited numbers, the problem should be manageable.
Moreover, economic and social programmes that have shown some success should continue. As these programmes are linked to the security operations, there is a danger that they will disappear when the operations come to an end. The US’s bad track-record on long term engagement after military withdrawal justifies these concerns.
The US should increase its diplomatic efforts with India, Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan Tajikistan and China, as all these neighbouring states have an interest in a stable Afghanistan. Besides, the US will need to get Pakistan on board. If the Taliban are given some authority in the Pashtun areas, Pakistan might feel reassured regarding their status in the Federally Administrated Tribal Area (FATA).
Finally, it is worth considering setting up an interim peacekeeping force. The Taliban have said that they would accept a Muslim-led security force. This idea deserves consideration, but the difficulty will be in finding a major military partner in the Muslim world.
The risk that some of these measures will fail exists. Hopefully, the progressive withdrawal of troops will open up space for their implementation. Every step should be linked to new conditions – only if the Taliban cooperate politically will more troops withdraw. But even so, a large number of spoilers threaten the process. Whatever the difficulty, the political alternative appears necessary.
• If the US put even half the effort it currently puts into its military strategy into supporting a political solution, the situation would improve. It needs to be more assertive in its support for talks with the Taliban, and increase its diplomatic efforts with neighbouring countries.
• A regional solution is needed, but tensions between major stakeholders like India, China, Russia and the US make it difficult to find an integrated approach. China’s cooperation with regard to Pakistan is imperative, but the competition between the US and China makes it difficult for them to work together. Iran needs to be brought in as well. US hostility against Iran blocks the much needed inclusion of this country.
• Pakistan remains the major problem in the region. So far, the US has dealt with the country’s security forces by bribing them with huge amounts of money. This has been a complete failure. Therefore, why not attempt to withdraw this support? Recent efforts have focussed on supporting Pakistani civil society with massive aid. But in a militarized society, this support has little chance of having much impact. This should have been done more than 20 years ago.
• Who are the Taliban? The insurgency has its roots among the Afghan people. The violence and corruption faced by the villagers motivated them to take up arms. This is what has led David Kilcullen to call the Taliban “accidental guerrillas.”
• While the Taliban do enjoy some popular support, the people also know how the Taliban exerted power and do not want a return to that situation. Therefore, the question remains – how can Afghan communities be encouraged to distance themselves from the Taliban? The presence of foreign troops being one major source of legitimacy for the insurgents, would support to the Taliban decrease if the troops withdraw?
• Is it realistic to expect the Taliban to join the constitutional process? The talks between Karzai’s government and the Taliban show some flexibility on the insurgents’ side. Besides, the Taliban used to be the representatives of the state. There are reasons to believe that they will accept a power-sharing agreement.
• The political approach outlined above does not imply that Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s strategy was a failure. His plan has only been implemented for two years. Beyond this, however, war creates its own socioeconomic dynamics, which have become obstacles to peace. These are additional arguments to find a political solution instead of a counter-insurgency strategy.
Report by Lucy Dubochet, Research Intern, IPCS