As the Afghanistan crisis deepens, “there is evidence of a continued divide between the White House and the military over the pace of withdrawal.” (New York Times, February 2, 2012) This dispute between civilian and military leadership is expected to worsen if President Obama accelerates the withdrawals past the 33,000 mark later this year, and as American troops are shifted out of combat roles by next year.
The US military openly opposes the pace of the drawdown, which already is too slow for most Democrats and the peace movement, because the resulting panic in Kabul could cause an implosion if efforts at a diplomatic settlement bog down.
In addition to reports of repeated attacks by Afghan troops on their American allies, an embarrassing NATO report shows that captured Taliban prisoners believe they are winning the war, undermining the claims that they are being pacified. (New York Times, February 2, 2012) One astonishing finding of the report is that the Taliban has rejected its previous alliance with Al Qaeda and no longer give logistical or military support to the terrorist network. That finding further undermines the state rationale for the war.
But the prospect of making peace with a confident and undefeated Taliban may be impossible for the military, the Republican leadership, the mainstream media, and many Americans to accept.
A face-saving prescription for ending the war may be at hand, however, in the recently-published “Afghanistan: The Best Way to Peace," by Anatol Lieven in the February 9 New York Review of Books. Lieven’s pedigree includes stints at The Financial Times, the Carnegie Foundation, King’s College London, and the New America Foundation. Its argument deserves to be read widely, but what is important is its projection of a settlement that all sides eventually must accept:
A fixed timetable for the complete withdrawal of US troops;
The exclusion of Al Qaeda and other “international terrorist groups” from zones under Taliban control;
A Kabul government headed by “men the Taliban would see as good Muslims and Afghan patriots”;
Transfer of power from the center to the regions;
A new Afghan constitution negotiated with the Taliban;
De facto - “though not formal” - Taliban control of Greater Kandahar and Hakkani control of Greater Paktika provinces;
The complete ban on poppy cultivation and heroin production in areas under their control, as offered by the Taliban in 1999-2001.
Such a scenario perhaps lurks hidden in the minds of Obama and Biden, who has said, “the Taliban per se is not an enemy.” Cease-fire and geographic enclave proposals have appeared in foreign policy journals. But Lieven is depressingly clear that no such proposal has been drawn up by Washington, and that the Pentagon still demands bases in Afghanistan “even at the price of making a settlement with the Taliban impossible” in order to keep striking at Al Qaeda, which Lieven finds appalling and simplistic.
Citing knowledgeable works by Antonio Giustozzi – “probably the world’s greatest expert on the Afghan Taliban” – and Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn, Lievan argues, “the Taliban leadership will not allow Al Qaeda to wreck an agreement that the Taliban sees as acceptable.”
Nor will the Taliban be able to storm and take over Kabul, at least if the US, Russia and India draw the line there. He suggests that the Western goal must be “to preserve the cities, at least as areas where women can continue to enjoy more rights and opportunities in the hope that a new culture will gradually spread from them to the countryside.”
There is a more apocalyptic scenario which might focus the mind of Beltway decision-makers. Lieven is correct in writing that US-Pakistan tensions are so grave that Pakistan’s troops will fight any American soldiers they find on their soil. Or if ordered by their leaders not to fight the Americans, “the unity of the army could be in question – and if the army breaks apart, not only will immense munitions and expertise flow to terrorists, but the Pakistan state will collapse.”
Lieven may be quite optimistic in his projections. The Taliban, for example, may overplay their hand and refuse to accept a negotiated compromise. The US military may assert that Obama’s gradual withdrawal is a surrender that endangers American lives. The Karzai government may implode without a replacement in site. Lieven omits mention of the drone war against Pakistan, which daily stokes the fires of nationalist hatred. It is impossible to imagine talking with the Taliban unless accompanied by a cessation of drone attacks on their Pakistan sanctuaries. Obama’s plan – 33,000 troops gone by September, a shift away from US combat roles by mid-2013, 68,000 more troops out by 2014, an unbridled increase in Special Forces commando teams, dickering over permanent bases – may be what passes for realism in Washington but exudes an excess of confidence bred by power. Hopefully someone in the White House inner circle understands that the US presence in Afghanistan is something like sand in an hourglass.