Afghanistan’s Political Future

STEPHEN BIDDLE – To achieve victory in Afghanistan, the United States and NATO will have to compromise without betraying their key goals. 

You initially supported the War in Afghanistan; would you still advocate for continued operations, or do you now believe the time has come for US soldiers to begin drawing back; would such a decision jeopardize any progress made during the last decade?

I have been supportive of the war. For what it is worth, though, when the Obama Administration was taking office, I believed that the United States interests in Iraq far outstripped those in Afghanistan. I was concerned at the time that too-rapid a transfer of resources from Iraq to Afghanistan would be a mistake. That said, I supported the efforts in Afghanistan, and reinforcements in the country, subject to the proviso that policymakers do not put US interests in Iraq at undue risk. At the moment, the case can be made that the interests at stake in Afghanistan have attenuated after the bin Laden raid. The right way to think about Afghanistan is not in a binary, “should we be there, should we not?” framework. Given the decisions that the Obama Administration has already made — especially the timetables mandating that troop drawdowns begin in summer 2011, and that the entire surge be withdrawn by September 2012 — the net result leads me to conclude that negotiation is the only way for the US to realize any of the interests still at stake in Afghanistan. War is therefore about the terms a negotiated settlement will reach, The reason Americans are fighting at the moment is to shift the terms of prospective settlement in the direction of our preferences as opposed to the Taliban’s preferences.

Given that, at this point, negotiation is the only way out in terms of Afghanistan, it is probably acceptable to withdraw more American troops than already announced. Of course, such a withdrawal would come at the expense of any settlement being less favorable to US interests.  Yet, there is no need for a perfect settlement; the US can live with a compromise. Thus, it can live with some degree of withdrawal greater than that which has already been planned.

What compromise do you envision being made between the United States and factions in Afghanistan that would be acceptable? 

 Some compromises are going to be required to reach any kind of a deal. It is almost certain that America will need to accept the Taliban as a legal party in the country. The US will have to agree to an eventual withdrawal of all American combat forces from Afghanistan, which includes special operations people associated with the intelligence services. There will be a set-aside of some guaranteed positions in the Afghan government for Taliban representatives. These kinds of concessions are the price of any kind of deal. The bargaining space at the moment — the difference between a more favorable deal and a less favorable one — turns on certain key points: How many offices have to be set aside to the Taliban? How senior must those offices be? What kinds of human rights, minority rights, or women’s rights guarantees will be retained in the constitution after a deal. Those kinds of questions are where the crux of the issue is at the moment. If the US bargaining leverage declines too much, America could end up in a situation where there can be absolutely no deal — there is no possibility of compromise. If the Taliban does not make compromises as well, no deal can be reached that will realize anyone’s objectives. Even if the US retains enough leverage to make the Taliban to make some kind of compromise — foreswearing violence and breaking with Al Qaeda, for example — it is also possible the US must have to concede so much political power to the Taliban that it is not possible to guarantee they will not take over the entire government.

Yet, the point of the combat activities is to determine how much of the disputed negotiation ground will the US have to give up in order to get a settlement.

The readiness of the Afghan military to confront the challenge that limited US involvement poses is a pressing question. In what state is the Afghan military, and has the US done a thorough job of building up its capability over the last ten years?

 American policymakers know less than they think about how capable the Afghan security forces are. The standard assumption is that the Afghan police are improving, but continue to be in pretty bad shape: very corrupt, poorly trained, and not capable of confronting serious security problems generally. The Afghan National Army is considered to be in better shape, especially at the small-unit level. The troops will fight, junior commanders are competent. The problem is the ability of the Afghan army to coordinate larger-scale operations, to provide logistical support and sustainability, and to perform tasks such as handling the equipment and organization of a post-American Afghan military.

This description is the standard view held by many analysts. The problem is that view is based on a set of assumptions about what produces military capabilities that are very American in many ways. Most American military leaders believe that it is possible to get a well-trained, capable infantry battalion by running the soldiers through the appropriate set of courses, provide the appropriate equipment, and assign advisors to accompany these units during combat operations. And it is along these lines that the US has been trying to build the new Afghan military.

In contrast, if one looks at the military history of the developing world — the US is essentially trying to create a developing-world military in Afghanistan — it is possible to approach the question of why these types of militaries succeed and why they fail. The answer is not that they succeed when they have the right equipment and the right training, and fail when they do not. The reason these militaries fail is that they have been politically co-opted by a nervous regime, and they succeed when they maintain a degree of political independence. It is the politics of the institution as much as its training or equipment that determines its efficacy.

In Afghanistan, American leaders know remarkably little about the politics of the security institutions they are creating. Much of Afghan business, commerce, economics, and politics is dominated by a series of patron-client networks that work similar to old-fashion machine politics in the United States. In an environment where so much of Afghan society is shaped by the workings of these political patronage machines, it would be surprising if the security forces in these areas were not under substantial pressure to be co-opted by them. Most criminal patron-client networks try to corrupt the police and the army around which they are operating for their own protection. There is a reasonable basis to suspect that the Afghan National Army and police — under the radar, because Americans are not watching — are under a great deal of stress to corrupt themselves through interaction with these networks. If these interactions do indeed exist, that would be immensely damaging to their potential combat-effectiveness in the future. Yet, because American military analysts have not been monitoring Afghan politics, US leaders know very little about what will likely matter most in terms of Afghanistan’s ability to defend itself after the US pullout.

The United States entered Afghanistan following the September 11 attacks with the goal, in part, of “killing or capturing” Osama bin Laden. Following the completion of that goal last year, what stakes, however, limited, does the US still have in Afghanistan?

For quite some time, the war itself has created subsidiary threats and therefore new US interests. This is not uncommon in war. In Iraq, for example, the invasion so destabilized the country that it created a risk that the war would spread throughout the Persian Gulf in ways that an intact Ba’athist government was unlikely to cause. Similarly, in Afghanistan, the US started the war with the objective of killing bin Laden and destroying Al Qaeda. Downstream consequences of the way in which the US went about achieving that goal, however, included the creation of a constellation of new problems in the form of non-Al Qaeda Islamist groups in Pakistan, among whose objectives is to topple the Pakistani government.

The Bush administration, shortly after 2001, went to the Pakistani government under Pervez Musharraf  to deliver an ultimatum: Either the Pakistanis turn on their own allies — the Taliban were created by the Pakistani Intelligence Service — or the US will get rid of the government. When the US did that, Musharraf, reading the tea leaves, sided with the Americans: he turned on his former Islamist allies. When he did that, all sorts of other militant groups within Pakistan, that had not previously been opposed to the Pakistani government, suddenly became enemies of the regime, marking the beginnings of a premature civil war in Pakistan between the government and a whole collection of Islamist militant and insurgent organizations. That threat did not exist in 2001, but was created as a result of the NATO handoff, and has come to threaten primary US interests in the region.

If the internal Islamist threat collapses the Pakistani government, the consequences are dire: Pakistan has a usable nuclear arsenal. If the military splits, and the intelligence service dissolves that nuclear arsenal could very well breach containment and fall into the hands of any among this collection of anti-western organizations. That threat is arguably much more severe than the Al-Qaeda threat was to the United States in 2001. The odds that Al-Qaeda would get its hands on a nuclear weapon as long as Pakistan remained intact was very small. The odds that a Pakistani-based militant group could obtain a weapon if Pakistan loses its internal war is much higher. These are still important concerns for the United States, even if Al-Qaeda is extinguished.


STEPHEN BIDDLE is Professor of International Affairs at George Washington University and an Adjunct Senior Fellow for Defense Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. He served on General Stanley McChrystal’s Initial Strategic Assessment Team in Kabul in 2009, on General David Petraeus’s Joint Strategic Assessment Team in Baghdad in 2007, and as a senior adviser to General Petraeus’s Central Command Assessment Team in Washington, DC, in 2008-2009.

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