President Obama’s signing of a strategic partnership agreement with President Karzai on May 1 and the ratification of a wind-down plan by NATO at its recent summit in Chicago in theory set the terms for the kind of presence the US will have after the “withdrawal” of US forces from that country in 2014. Of course, the US is not really going to withdraw by this date; it will leave behind Special Forces, drones, trainers, and other assets that will still give it residual military capabilities in Afghanistan. Nonetheless, the departure of the big bulge of forces that came in with Obama’s 2010 surge will be gone, and the US will consequently face a vastly diminished capacity to shape events on the ground.
It seems obvious that we need to start thinking through the political dimensions of a post-NATO Afghanistan, and specifically, what a negotiated settlement with the Taliban might look like. Among the dumber things Mitt Romney has said during the primary campaign (and there’s lots of competition for that) is that he doesn’t intend to negotiate with the Taliban, but to defeat them. Lots of luck. Political support for continuation of the war is vanishing daily in both parties, and regardless of who is elected president in November, a substantial US withdrawal will occur within the next few years. Until the election happens, there will be no overt discussion of what a political settlement might look like. But early 2013 will be a very late moment to begin thinking about this issue; better to begin now.
We can start by going back to basic US interests in Afghanistan. Our goals there have drifted over time and are now disconnected from any strategic purpose our presence may have once served.
The US invaded Afghanistan in the fall of 2001, quite legitimately, in order to dismantle the nearly two dozen large training bases that al-Qaida operated in that country, and from which the September 11 attacks were organized and run. This goal has been achieved already several years ago. Al-Qaida still exists, but the most dangerous parts of the organization are now in the tribal belt in Pakistan, or in Somalia, Yemen, and other places further afield. Their ability to reestablish themselves in Afghanistan will increase after a US withdrawal, but our residual air assets and Special Forces will very likely be more than sufficient to guarantee that that country will never become a major staging ground again. (At any rate, it won’t pose more of a threat than what we already face in Pakistan.)
So why are we continuing to fight the Taliban? The reasons are much clearer on their side than on ours. They are fighting us because NATO forces are occupying their country, setting up a presence in their villages and are perceived to be pulling the strings behind a weak and illegitimate government in Kabul. The Taliban at this point represents the religio- ethno-nationalism of the Pushtun communities in Afghanistan (religion, ethnicity, and nationalism are all intertwined in that part of the world today). As far as I can see they have no beef with the United States that would motivate them to attack us where we live, if we actually were to leave them alone. They cooperate with groups like the Haqqani network in Pakistan, but that’s because the Haqqanis are useful to them, and not because they share agendas. The Haqqanis are more a creature of the Pakistan’s intelligence services, our nominal ally.
Our reasons for fighting them are much more complex. We feel that we derive some marginal anti-terrorism benefit by being physically present in southern Afghanistan. The US military was given a counterinsurgency mission, and it doesn’t want to appear unable to complete it. But the real issue is a moral one: if we simply depart without providing a framework for stability in that country (much as we did after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989), Afghanistan is likely to return to chaos and yet another phase of the civil war that has been ongoing since the 1970s.
The United States has actually done a lot of good things in Afghanistan since 2001, in terms of building schools, educating boys and girls, and stimulating some economic development. In the process, we have enlisted many Afghan allies, telling them that if they signed up with us, we would protect them and make their lives better. If we leave these pro-Western groups to the Taliban, we will be repeating the same disgraceful pattern of intervention and subsequent betrayal that has played out in many of our previous Third World involvements, from Nicaragua in the 1930s to Vietnam. Laos, and Cambodia in the 1970s. So we have an obligation to try to create some stable balance in that country through political means.
If I am correct in assessing the Taliban’s basic motivations, then their main political objective should be to gain power in areas with large Pushtun populations. It is not clear that they would have a strong interest in trying to seize power in Kabul, as they did in the 1990s, nor is it evident that they would want to take on the Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras, and other groups if they didn’t have to. The latter are all watching and waiting; the Northern Alliance could reconstitute itself as a fighting force pretty quickly if they felt a direct threat from the Taliban.
This means that any political settlement would have to be built around a strongly decentralized Afghanistan, in which there is a nominal government in Kabul, but in which the different regions are given a much higher degree of de jure autonomy than they have now. In this respect, the main obstacle to a political settlement is the 2004 constitution that came out of the Bonn agreement and the constitutional loya jirga. For reasons that are now only of historical interest, the parties to that process agreed to make Afghanistan on paper one of the most unitary, centralized states in the world. The president has the power to appoint provincial governors; the Karzai family’s control over Kandahar is one of the biggest complaints that southern Pushtuns have about present arrangements. (The constitution also enshrined a single non-transferrable vote electoral system, another feature that the international community should have tried to block back in 2004.) So it is conceivable that the Taliban might sign up to a system that gave them de facto political control of southern Afghanistan, leaving other parts of the country to the other ethnic groups.
There are at least five big problems in getting to this kind of settlement. The first is how to actually get around the 2004 constitution. One could try to call another loya jirga, but it is hard to see this coming about under present conditions of insecurity. Even if it could meet, it is not clear that it could come to a consensus on a new system; article 150 of the constitution mandates a two-thirds majority for any changes and gives Karzai a veto. It might be possible to leave the current constitution in place, and simply negotiate informal understandings that it would be in effect violated, by having governors for example locally selected.
The second problem is one of minorities within minorities. Afghanistan is a patchwork of ethnicities; in particular, there are very large Pushtun communities in the north that would be stranded if the south were to become the new Pushtunistan (and vice versa). All settlements based on rule by dominant ethnic groups risk unleashing population transfers and ethnic cleansing, as in the partition of the subcontinent in 1947, the breakup of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, or Iraq after 2003.
The third problem is President Karzai, who would be a big loser in such a deal because he would no longer have patronage powers very far outside of Kabul.
A fourth problem is the Taliban itself. The Taliban is not a unitary actor, but contains within itself different trends and is in any case built on top of a complex tribal structure. There are big differences of perspective between urban and rural Pushtuns. It is not clear with whom the government of Afghanistan or NATO would negotiate with (Karzai has already gotten burned talking to fake Taliban representatives), or whether a designated negotiator would be able to make an agreement stick. The Taliban has reportedly set up an office in Qatar so there is at least an address to which one could mail an invitation.
A fifth problem concerns the international dimension. As an interested parties, the US or NATO could not oversee a peace process directly; a UN framework is probably necessary for a negotiation to take place. No settlement will be successful unless Afghanistan’s neighbors India, Pakistan, Iran, and Russia, are willing to live with it. Needless to say, many of these parties are involved in bitter conflicts with one another and cannot be gotten around a table easily.
So getting to a negotiated settlement won’t be easy. But no negotiation of a long and bitter conflict looks easy at the outset. The United States has proven that it cannot be defeated militarily in Afghanistan. But it does not have the public support to stay there in large numbers indefinitely, nor should it, given the nature of our underlying interests in the country. So in addition to our military strategy we need to at least begin to think concretely about a political path towards stabilizing the country once our direct military presence has been drawn down.
[A version of this piece was published in the Financial Times on May 16, 2012.]