Friday, June 25, 2010;
While President Obama is surging troops into Afghanistan and money into Pakistan, plans are being laid
for a negotiated settlement to be reached before the beginning of the
American drawdown in July 2011. Gen. David Petraeus's appointment this week as U.S.
commander in Afghanistan increases the urgency of defining the terms of
such a settlement.
For those of us who listen carefully to silence, the most interesting
part of the president's West Point commencement address last month
was his failure to declare any end state for the war in Afghanistan and
Pakistan. He was clear he wanted "an Iraq that provides no safe haven to
terrorists; a democratic Iraq that is sovereign, stable and
self-reliant." But he said nothing comparable about Afghanistan.
This notable silence is rooted in the growing conviction that even if
the United States and its coalition allies can succeed this summer in
clearing a town like Kandahar of Taliban fighters, there is no one to
hold the terrain, build the necessary institutions or accept
responsibility once the military has completed its work. This spring's
experiment in clearing Marja, where Taliban fighters have been leaking
back in, has demonstrated how difficult the task is likely to be in
The State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development,
which have quadrupled the number of civilians in Afghanistan in the past
year, are still not confident of civilian capabilities. The Afghan
government clearly cannot carry the burden.
So the administration is looking for a decent, negotiated exit. The
Pakistani intelligence service would act as a surrogate (and guarantor)
for the Taliban, as Slobodan Milosevic did for the Bosnian Serbs 15
years ago. The Americans would deliver Kabul. The deal might leave the
Taliban in control of large parts of Afghanistan but keep al-Qaeda in
Pakistan, where Islamabad would agree to deal harshly with its fighters.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has repeatedly enunciated her "red
lines" for such an agreement: Taliban renunciation of violence and
willingness to abide by the Afghan constitution (which guarantees women
equal rights), as well as refusal to allow al-Qaeda or others to operate
against the United States.
If the Taliban does come to power in part of Afghanistan -- say,
controlling the south and sharing power in Kabul -- Afghanistan could
start to look like Lebanon: Hezbollah controls large portions of the
country, operates its own military forces and delivers services to large
parts of the population, but the United States and other countries have
embassies in Beirut, deal regularly with the government and parliament,
and try to persuade Lebanese authorities to limit the sway and reach of
The parallels suggest less palatable comparisons: Hezbollah-controlled
territory is far from free. It is hard to imagine that
Taliban-controlled territory would be more so. At least Hezbollah is
contained by strict Israeli border security. Nothing like that exists on
the highly porous Afghan-Pakistan border. The Taliban is far less
interested in governing than Hezbollah is and is far less popular.
Hezbollah projects Iranian influence and is an important source of
regional instability, training and arms to those who threaten Israel and
more moderate Arab states. Even if the Taliban did not try to attack
the United States, it could still prove inimical to U.S. interests, as
it has in Pakistan.
While Afghan President Hamid Karzai would gladly end a war that pits him
against fellow Pashtuns, the Taliban's Afghan enemies -- the Tajik- and
Uzbek-dominated Northern Alliance -- are unlikely to appreciate a large
fraction of their country being turned over to those who regard the
Quetta Shura, which runs the most important segment of the Taliban, as
the ultimate authority.
Karzai recently fired two key security officials, ostensibly for
allowing attacks on the national peace conference (jirga) that gave him
more or less a blank check in dealing with the Taliban. The men he fired
were tough Afghan nationalist opponents of the Quetta Shura and their
perceived backers in Pakistan.
Who replaces them as interior minister and intelligence chief will send
signals to Pakistan and the Taliban. If Karzai replaces them with people
more to the liking of Islamabad, and the Americans nod approvingly, it
will indicate that the door is open to negotiations.
What is not clear is whether the Taliban wants to come calling. The
fighters seem to be feeling little pain despite courageous Afghan and
American efforts on the battlefield. And Pakistan may not be willing, or
able, to force the Taliban to deal.
Assuming negotiations start in earnest by fall, it is doubtful that
Clinton's red lines can be made to hold in any part of Afghanistan under
Taliban control. The only one that seems really to matter to Obama is
blocking al-Qaeda's return to Afghanistan. The women of southern
Afghanistan already wear burqas. What will be their fate if the United
States accepts Taliban control?
Other outcomes are still possible. The president should start by
specifying his desired end state. "An Afghanistan that provides no safe
haven to terrorists, ensures equal rights to all its citizens and
maintains its sovereignty with international help but without foreign
troops on its territory" might be a good place to start. But then he
would likely have to keep U.S. troops in Afghanistan well past the next
election, as he seems increasingly to be recognizing. Petraeus would do
well to insist on a clearly defined end state as he takes up his new
The writer is vice president for Centers of Peacebuilding Innovation
at the United States Institute of Peace. The views expressed here are