Now that President Obama is embarking on a phased withdrawal from Afghanistan, many peace advocates are hoping for a practical blueprint linking troop reductions with peace talks, regional diplomacy, and reform or replacement of the Karzai regime. A couple of years ago there was a foggy scenario based on the Dayton peace accords in the Balkans, in which the combat would be complemented by the growth of a viable civil society and economy. It was a flawed comparison even then, because Afghanistan is not only devastated under foreign occupation, but also lacks the unity and infrastructure on which peaceful development is based. Since the death of former Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, the efforts at building civil society have languished under the weight of massive corruption and political dysfunction.
Those looking for light at the end of this tunnel must read “The Need for an Economic and Political Transition Strategy in Afghanistan” by three principals of the Center for American Progress (CAP), John Podesta, Brian Katulis and Caroline Wadhams, based on a four-day trip in July. CAP supported Obama’s Afghanistan escalation strategy in 2008-9, and shifted course by proposing a significant U.S. troop withdrawal—known as drawdown in Washington-speak—during the 2011-2012 election cycle. Podesta is Bill Clinton’s former chief of staff and co-chaired Obama’s transition team.
We have no idea what conclusions they may have shared privately with the president’s national security team when they returned from their four days in Kabul. The report itself is surprisingly short of original, specific or plausible steps toward a diplomatic, political and economic transition. The title summarizes the trio’s message: that there is a need for a transitional strategy. This is more a wake-up call than a blueprint for a peace process. To quote the report itself:
“We found that the Afghan state is in crisis, with a broad range of Afghans warning that their country’s fragile democratic institutions are crumbling. A number of obstacles to a successful political and economic transition exist, including unchecked executive power, serious discord among those political forces that accept the Afghan constitution, and many unanswered questions about the path forward to achieve a sustainable political settlement with the Taliban. If the current trajectory continues, the ANSF may have no state left to defend.”
“The current transition strategy is similar to a three-legged stool with two weak legs—the political institutional development and economic transition efforts—with much of the resources and investment being made in the one strong leg, the security assistance.”
Some critics argue that Afghanistan is a “forever war” with no prospect of ending, a much too cynical view of both reality and the Obama administration. There are some at the highest level who seem to hold this view, however. For example, Gen. David Petraeus, is quoted as saying “You have to recognize also that I don’t think you win this war. I think you keep fighting...this is the kind of fight we’re in for the rest of our lives and probably our kids’ lives.” (Bob Woodward, Obama’s Wars, p. 333)
Obama, Vice President Biden and the vast majority of congressional Democrats, on the other hand, have recognized the need for de-escalation and an exit strategy, if only for face-saving and cost-saving purposes. The decision to “redeploy” 33,000 American troops from combat this year, and the rest by 2014, is not a strategy to achieve military victory. It is largely a political strategy acknowledging the costs and casualties that concern the American electorate. In Afghanistan, the CAP report essentially concludes that the American troops will be leaving behind a political vacuum—there may be “no state left to defend.”
The obvious conflict resolution scenario—confidence-building measures, indirect talks, talks about talks, all-party talks, a power-sharing transition, new elections, etc.—could become impossible to implement if the landlords, warlords and mafias of Kabul are unable to establish a viable, presentable regime at a negotiating table. This is not Iraq, where the United States installed a majority-Shiite regime representing a 60 percent Shiite population against an insurgency based in the twenty percent Sunni population. In Afghanistan the ethnic and geographic fault lines of the previous civil war —Taliban versus Northern Alliance – remain very much in evidence for now. As the U.S. redeploys, it is inevitable that the Taliban networks will become a greater force despite their relative unpopularity outside the Pashtun south. That is why the reform of the Karzai government, and its merger into a broad power-sharing arrangement including the Taliban, under international protections, seems so integral to the American policy of military redeployment. Who will the U.S. “hand off” its powers to? The answer for now is Humpty Dumpty. And if the Karzai regime implodes, what then? Will the administration continue its withdrawals, or re-escalate a failed war out of political considerations?
The CAP report states the potential catastrophe ahead. It should be read in its entirety at americanprogress.org.