As previously reported by the Peace and Justice Resource Center, the US combat presence in Afghanistan is winding steadily down while political gridlock in Washington is sabotaging the possibility of a negotiated settlement with the Taliban. Hell may lie ahead if purgatory cannot be negotiated.
The long-time focus of peace advocates in Congress, like representatives like Barbara Lee, Dennis Kucinich, Jim McGovern and others, has been on setting timetables for troop withdrawals and funding cuts – while never holding exit strategy hearings or charting a parallel diplomatic course out of the quagmire.
Fearing the taint of “talks with the Taliban,” the Obama administration has pursued diplomatic avenues far off-camera, and with little result. Arranging a settlement though Pakistan has been impossible because of the escalating US drone flights and strikes over and on sovereign Pakistan territory. The recent US listing of the Haqqani warlord network, under US Republican pressure, as a “foreign terrorist organization” terminates any possible power-sharing role for that well-organized force on the Pakistan-Afghan border. Republican-led opposition in Congress to any swap of Taliban prisoners at Guantanamo Bay in exchange for American Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl leaves US diplomacy stranded during a decisive time in the conflict.
The prisoner swap was conceived as a confidence-building measure that would lead to broader diplomatic steps aimed at a settlement. But the US refusal, combined with the terrorist designation of the Haqqanis, reinforced the hard-liners in the insurgent leadership and left more diplomatic and pragmatic elements empty-handed. (See also in the New York Times, “A Pointless Blacklisting,” September 12, and “US Abandoning Hopes for a Taliban Peace Deal,” New York Times, October 2, 2012.)
Talks conceivably could begin in Qatar around the prisoner swap and if the US agrees to a Taliban office being established there. That possibility is being ditched at least during the presidential election, “leaving too little time to reach a deal before 2014, some current and former American officials said.” (New York Times, October 2, 2012)
Each day that passes means declining leverage for the US around issues such as women's rights and education, which the Americans might insist on as part of a negotiated withdrawal settlement.
The diplomatic standstill is accompanied by the American failure on the battlefield to seriously set back the Taliban during the now-ended “surge” of 33,000 troops since 2009. The steady reduction of the present 68,000 US troops to as few as 35,000 next year, and at least 90 percent troop withdrawal by the end of 2014, means that the Karzai regime will be weakening and the Taliban militarily strengthened in the absence of any diplomatic-political arrangement. In an example of his inner circle tightening, Karzai has appointed as his new spy chief Asadullah Khalid, accused of torture and narco-trafficking by a high-ranking Canadian diplomat while Khalid was in charge of Kandahar Province. Under current law, Karzai is prohibited from running for re-election in 2014, potentially an opportunity to transition to a different power-sharing arrangement. But Karzai now looks more like Humpty-Dumpty.
It may be that the Taliban have no interest in a negotiated power-sharing arrangement with the corrupt Karzai regime in Kabul. But the Taliban remain widely unpopular in regions of Afghanistan, and military over-confidence on their part could re-ignite a civil war. Based on the Vietnam-era “enclave” proposals, some sort of interim geographic partition might stabilize the country as long as the international community backs a transition to new elections that respect the country's ethnic chasms. A force of peacekeepers from non-aligned nations might well be part of a negotiated settlement as well. But not if no one is talking.
It is highly doubtful that Obama will backtrack on his pledged path of withdrawals by late 2014. Already France and New Zealand have decided to pull their military forces back ahead of the 2014 NATO timetable, and others may follow. The rising number of Afghan troops shooting their American “partners” may cause an abrupt acceleration of the departure timetable.
Obama's firmest grounding with American public opinion is that “we've done enough” and it's time for the Afghan army, with 320,000 soldiers, to “stand up for themselves.” But that is the fog of war. Obama will have to work a complicated and controversial diplomatic miracle – including diplomacy with Pakistan, Iran and China – if he wants the appearance of an “orderly withdrawal” from Afghanistan. The Pentagon, the neo-conservatives, the politicians and some in the mainstream media will be very upset. But there is no American or European public support for another decade of war. Even super-powers can overextend and severely damage themselves.
For more, please see Barbara Tuchman, The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam, for a likely preview of Afghanistan's future.