The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
Was Obama Right to Set a Deadline for US Troops in Afghanistan?

A recent article in the Economist suggests that President Obama, contrary to most analysis on the subject, was actually right to set a deadline to pull American troops out of Afghanistan. The approaching deadline, the Economist argues, seems to be spurring warring parties in Afghanistan and Pakistan into action:

Minds are being focused because of the looming 2014 deadline for coalition forces to end combat operations in Afghanistan. After that, the likeliest outcome is a fragile state with an anaemic economy, a corrupt government, deep ethnic divisions and an army of limited strength. No government wants outright chaos, or civil war, so the urge to co-operate is growing.

Take, for example, a plan produced by Mr Karzai’s High Peace Council, a body which is supposed to get insurgents to negotiate. It sets out how Pakistan will have to “facilitate direct contact” of the warring parties. The “Peace Process Roadmap to 2015” also foresees negotiations late next year between the Afghan government and the Taliban. Contentiously, too, it proposes that the Taliban should share power by getting “non-elected positions”, such as provincial governorships and other regional posts. The effect, in theory, would be to cede control of the south and the east of Afghanistan. The Taliban could also get ministerial positions in Kabul without winning any election.

Via Meadia previously lamented Obama’s decision to simultaneously send more troops to Afghanistan while setting a deadline for their withdrawal. This would, we wrote, simply convince the Taliban that all they had to do was wait NATO out, and victory would be theirs. We are still nervous that this is what is actually happening, and the latest news doesn’t really allay those fears. A stalemate is more likely than not to degrade into a Taliban win. International troops will tire of this war before the Taliban does, and the last man standing can reasonably claim the win. Jihadis everywhere will welcome the propaganda coup; they will claim to have driven out the Americans the way they drove out the Soviets — proof, they will say, that God blesses the radicals and the jihadis in their, well, crusade.

We are also skeptical of what we often hear in policy and military circles in Washington: that Obama’s surge actually worked. Afghanistan can hardly govern itself, the national army and the police force are shambolic, and the old warlords are rearming in preparation for the civil war they see coming after NATO troops are gone.

But the Economist‘s report does offer some rays of hope. A political solution to the Afghan war is essentia after all. No matter how many bombs are dropped by drones in Pakistan, no matter how many troops try to win hearts and minds in Afghanistan’s Taliban-ridden rural provinces—only with a political agreement between the warring parties can there be any hope of lasting peace. If America were willing to commit a million troops for a hundred years — or perhaps only half a million for a generation — we could get more done. But we aren’t willing to do that, and policy makers have to base policy on realities, however unsatisfactory those may be.

We’ve seen hints of a political arrangement come and go in the past (for example, the failed Qatar talks), so there are no guarantees the most recent round will result in any kind of solution. But it might be our best hope to end this dismal war.

Published on December 17, 2012 7:00 pm