If President Barack Obama is serious about finding out whether a political settlement of the war in Afghanistan is possible in 2011, he’d use the scheduled review of US Afghanistan policy to order a ceasefire, halt the faltering offensive in the southern provinces of Kandahar and Helmand, put an end to the lethal night raids by US Special Forces that have killed hundreds of low-level insurgents, and stop the drone-fired missile attacks in both Afghanistan and Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) on the other side of the border.
And then he could press Pakistan to bring insurgent leaders to the bargaining table for direct talks with the United States, including the Quetta Shura Taliban, the Islamic Party of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, and the forces led by Sirajuddin Haqqani, all of whom have close ties to Pakistan’s army and its intelligence service, the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate (ISI).
He should – but he won’t.
Sometime in mid-December, the president will meet with his senior national security team to evaluate the war’s progress. It’s virtually certain that Obama’s year-end review will result in no change of policy, no course corrections, and a commitment to remain engaged in combat until 2014 and beyond.
That’s not because Obama’s strategy is working.
By all accounts – except the US military’s overly optimistic reports – that progress is nil. After tripling the level of American forces in a year and launching offensives in Helmand and Kandahar, the Taliban insurgency continues to grow, spreading from its southern stronghold and the areas east of Kabul into Afghanistan’s previously calm northern provinces.Kabul is surrounded to the east, south and west by Taliban-controlled areas, and the insurgents can strike the capital itself with gunmen and suicide bombers at will. The Afghan government has little or no influence over provincial and district administrations anywhere in the country, and the Afghan National Army is unable to operate except as a cosmetic accompaniment to the United States and NATO.
Last December, when he announced the second of two escalations of the war in 2009, Obama placated the liberals, antiwar activists, and Congressional Democrats who are his political base by promising to begin drawing down US forces in July 2011. Since then, the Pentagon has mightily resisted that deadline, and key officials such as Gen.David Petraeus and Secretary of Defence Robert Gates have emphasized that any withdrawal will be dependent on conditions on the ground. In November, after Petraeus delivered a rosy report to the NATO summit in Lisbon, the United States, NATO, and President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan agreed that the foreign forces would remain engaged in combat until at least 2014, and a senior NATO official declared that the combat forces would likely remain through 2015 and possibly longer.
In any case, Obama has never made clear how, exactly, conditions might affect the withdrawal. If, by July 2011, clear and indisputable progress has been made, does that mean that the White House will decide to maintain forces at or near current levels in order to consolidate the gains that will have been made? Or, on the other hand, if by then it’s clear that the Taliban is stronger than ever, or that the Taliban has strengthened its grip on large swaths of Afghanistan, does that mean that the United States will maintain forces at current levels, or even increase them, in order to avoid complete defeat? It isn’t clear. Indeed, success or failure,it’s likely that Obama will want to sustain the war.
Sadly, that’s because the president’s decisions are primarily based on domestic political calculations. The sweeping defeat suffered by Obama’s Democratic party at the polls in November greatly increased the power and influence of hawks in the Republican party in Congress, especially in the House of Representatives, where ultra-conservatives Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida and Buck McKeon of California will take over the foreign affairs committee and the armed services committee, respectively. Both are bitterly opposed to the July 2011 drawdown, and they’ve signalled their intention to form a political alliance with the uniformed military, including Petraeus, to quash it.
In addition, a spate of low-level terrorist attempts by radicalized American Muslims with ties to Pakistan-based militant groups over the past year has caused the White House to be fearful of a domestic political backlash should a terrorist attack succeed after Obama begins to withdraw forces from Afghanistan. With his re-election in 2012 now in grave jeopardy, Obama won’t likely give his right-wing opponents any pretext to accuse him of being overly doveish.
The tragedy is that only a political agreement, involving negotiations between the United States, the Afghan government, the Taliban, and the Pakistani Army can bring the war to an end. The fitful round of talks with the Taliban during the spring and summer – including the excruciatingly embarrassing revelation that one Taliban interlocutor was an impostor – did not achieve any result, it now appears. That’s partly because Karzai and the United States tried to short-circuit Pakistan, keeping the ISI and its allies out of the loop, virtually guaranteeing that Pakistan would prevent the talks from going anywhere. Another reason they failed is that the senior Taliban leadership and the ISI don’t see Karzai as a credible partner for talks, viewing him instead as weak, isolated, and ineffective.
To succeed, the United States must talk directly with Pakistan and its clients, including the Quetta Shura. Both Pakistan and the Taliban would like to see a timetable for the departure of foreign forces in Afghanistan. Obama’s July 2011 timetable could serve as a starting point for an agreement on a withdrawal, if tied to a plan to reorganize the Afghan government by bringing the insurgents into a rebalanced political compact. To get the ball rolling, however, a unilateral American ceasefire as a sign of good will would go a long way toward convincing Afghans of all persuasions – including Karzai, who’s demanded an end to drone attacks and Special Forces death squad activities – that the United States is serious about wanting an end to the war.
But there’s no appetite for that, at least not yet.