The Afghanistan Endgame: Questionable Assumptions

Reports that the Obama Administration may be considering a “zero option” for the complete withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan at the end of 2014 have made plenty of waves and sparked debates over the future stability of the country (see Richard Weitz’s nice synopsis here). Given the war-exhaustion of Americans and their NATO allies, the stalled and uncertain peace process between Karzai and the Taliban, and the looming Afghan Presidential elections scheduled for next year, it really is a time of great uncertainty in South and Central Asia. Nobody knows what will happen over the course of the next 12 months, let alone five years from now.

Nevertheless, it is striking how little the popular narrative about the West’s intervention in Afghanistan has changed over the last decade. Political and military leaders give the same familiar talking points about building democracy and nation-building, although nobody seems to know what exactly these terms mean any better than we did in 2001.  James F. Dobbins, the Obama Administrations special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, recently offered his view that “the future stability of Afghanistan rests on a peaceful transition of political authority from President Karzai to his successor in 2014 through an election that Afghans themselves accept as credible … Inclusive elections are critical to their country’s stability.”

If that kind of language sounds familiar, it should. It’s not quite as rhetorically bold as Lakhdar Brahimi’s 2001 vision of a “forward looking, pro-Western, moderate, law-governed, and democratic Muslim state in the heart of Asia,” but the idea is the same: just install institutions of Western electoral democracy, and eventually some sort of ‘democratic peace’ will naturally kick in that will stabilize the country and allow Western troops to leave gracefully.

This idea never made a lot of sense, and today it looks like a more distant fantasy than ever. Here are a few particularly questionable assumptions which are linked to this strategy:

  1. U.S. strategic interests and democratization in Afghanistan are compatible goals.

After twelve years, we are still talking about the need to build an inclusive, legitimate, Western-style democratic state while we simultaneously hold the country under military occupation, spend millions bribing warlords, and foot the bill for almost all of the government’s expenditures. That there might be serious and fatal contradictions here just doesn’t seem to register.  Sarah Chayes summed up the problem nicely in a recent testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee: “If the United States is serious about a credible election and minimal political integrity, then USG actors whose direct relationships with key Afghan political figures, including financial support, contradict that objective must be ordered to desist from such actions.”

So, either the USG is not actually serious about the quality of Afghan democracy, or it is but certain elements of its counter-terrorism strategy demand that it compromise that objective by paying off very undemocratic warlords and militias for their cooperation. Not good.

  1. Everything hinges on the next election.

They are important, but only one factor among many. There is no straightforward relationship between holding free elections and maintaining stability in failed/fragile states (for some scholars like Jack Snyder or Roland Paris, the opposite is true). Undoubtedly a biased election in 2014 would be taken as yet more evidence of the deep corruption within Afghanistan’s political institutions. But that perception is so thoroughly ingrained already it’s hard to believe that one election – no matter how hard the U.S. and the Karzai government try to make it appear legitimate – would be transformative. Given that there is already conflict between Karzai and the opposition over the appointment of members of the courts and electoral commission, combined with the well-known flaws in the country’s balloting system and reluctance by the U.S. to intervene too heavily in the process, it is a foregone conclusion that the election will be labeled as “illegitimate” by at least some of its losers.

Looking around the region, it’s clear that many regimes are perfectly capable of sustaining a firm grip on power without inclusive and fair elections (Iran, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, the Gulf States), and that some countries with more pluralistic political systems can hardly be described as stable (Pakistan, Iraq). Elections are one component of a stable democracy, but not the only one and not necessarily the most important in the short term – so why the ongoing obsession with them?

  1. Extending the NATO troop presence for a few more years would make a big difference in the ultimate outcome.

Remember Obama’s drawn-out deliberations over sending thousands more U.S. troops back in 2009? What long-term strategic difference did that surge make?  What evidence do we have that if Western forces stayed longer, it would produce a better outcome this time?

Very early on the decision was made that the U.S. would not be occupying Afghanistan indefinitely as a protectorate state. Rather, it would use a “light footprint” approach to build a minimally secure and stable political order, keep a small number of Special Forces around for counter-terrorism operations, and eventually head for the door. Everyone knows that is the long term plan (even if other side-quests have since glommed onto the mission), and sticking around a few more years isn’t going to fool anyone. The Taliban are willing to fight forever, because they live there. Americans aren’t, because they don’t.

After a decade of occupation and war, one would have hoped we would be having a more honest and realistic conversation about Western strategy in Afghanistan. Unfortunately that doesn’t seem to be the case.

*One final comment on the current peace talks with the Taliban. The current model of single-track diplomacy (i.e. only the Karzai government and the Taliban at the table) is a risky approach, because it marginalizes all the other non-violent political voices in the country. If a power-sharing deal is struck now, it would exclude groups who have remained peaceful in their opposition to Karzai’s rule, and instead reward the Taliban for their capacity for armed violence. This could obviously produce popular resentment towards any political deal, and would potentially create new spoilers and foster future civil conflict. However, broadening the negotiations to include too many actors could produce an unwieldy peace process, one which the Taliban could easily walk away from. And right now, they are the main party which must be brought inside the political fold in order for the violence to subside. Negotiating peace agreements to protracted civil wars necessarily involves some nasty trade-offs.

Philip Martin

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