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How the US Should Exit Afghanistan

The announcements of a drawdown of US troops and talks with the Taliban are welcome. But Obama’s Afghanistan policy is still muddled.

By Patrick Seale for
How the US Should Exit Afghanistan
Credit: ISAF Media

The United States’ exit from its costly 10-year war in Afghanistan has begun. This is a welcome step, but will it be peace with honour? That’s far from certain with so much remaining unclear with the longer-term outlook.

Two recent developments have certainly changed the picture for the better, if not yet as radically as some would like. First, it has been announced in both Washington and Kabul that talks with the Taliban leadership, or at least contacts of some sort, are underway. German mediators are thought to be playing a role. Secondly, US President Barack Obama has announced a fairly bold timetable for US force withdrawals, defying some of his hard-line military advisers who had argued for a more cautious drawdown.

Of the almost 100,000 US soldiers in Afghanistan today, 10,000 are to return home this summer, another 23,000 by September 2012 (in time to have an impact on November’s presidential election) and many of the remaining 67,000 by the end of 2014, when Afghan forces are due to assume responsibility for their country’s security.

The fly in the ointment is that there’s talk of some 20,000 US soldiers remaining in Afghanistan stationed at permanent US bases. No doubt the intention is that they will continue to play a counter-terrorism role in both Afghanistan and neighbouring Pakistan. But this could prove seriously counter-productive, as it will arouse bitter opposition in both Iran and Pakistan (and no doubt in Afghanistan as well).

But that is to look too far ahead. The current message from Washington is that US disengagement from the Af-Pak theatre of war has begun. Driving the withdrawal is the United States’ patent war weariness. US politicians of both parties have grasped that the American public is fed up with what has come to seem an unwinnable conflict, and it wants out. A deficit-ridden United States, wrestling with high unemployment and a crumbling infrastructure, can no longer afford the exorbitant cost of the Afghan war. The bill for the last decade has topped $450 billion, with $120 billion spent last year alone. Expenditure on the war is currently running at $2 billion a week.

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Obama is well aware that this must stop. But his policies are still plagued by contradictions and plain muddle. The dominant view in Washington is that the Taliban must first be weakened, if not actually defeated, before serious negotiations can succeed. This was the argument behind the ‘surge’ in US troop numbers, which Obama agreed to last year. But the Taliban have proved resilient. They may have fallen back here and there in the face of overwhelming US pressure, but their hit-and-run attacks and suicide bombings are more frequent and lethal than ever. They have also pushed their tentacles into northern provinces well beyond their Pashtun heartland. Killing their leaders by missile strikes may raise a cheer, but it has resulted in more radical commanders taking over, younger men even less inclined to negotiate than their elders. In a word, the policy of ‘kill them first and negotiate afterwards’ has been a failure.

Should Obama have been bolder? The following are some steps he might have taken – and still could.

1) Call for an immediate ceasefire to create the right atmosphere for peace talks. Once the guns fall silent, negotiations could be held in Afghanistan itself, or in Turkey or Qatar, countries with a proven record of mediation.

2) Summon all Afghanistan neighbours – whether the US likes them or not – to an international conference at which all aspects of the Afghan problem would be discussed and everyone’s interests in the country addressed, so that the outlines of a deal could emerge. The aim would be to get all Afghanistan’s neighbours, near and far, on board.

3) Follow up the international conference with a loya jurga, a major tribal gathering attended by all Afghan factions, at which the details of the internationally-backed peace deal could be thrashed out and finalised.

4) Encourage Afghan President Hamid Karzai to appoint a commission to draft an urgently-needed new Afghan constitution. The present highly-centralised presidential system doesn’t suit a country of diverse regions and ethnic communities.

5) Pledge that all US and allied forces would be withdrawn once a peace deal was implemented.

6) Promise to fund a major ten-year aid package, to be disbursed once peace takes hold. 

There are, of course, several obstacles to such a peace strategy, most of them the result of America’s mistaken policies.

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First there's Iran. The Islamic Republic of Iran has a frontier of nearly 1,000 kilometres with Afghanistan, over which it keeps a close eye. It needs to guard against raids by al-Qaeda and other Sunni jihadis, stem the inflow of Afghan drugs, and protect communities in Afghanistan to which it is allied, whether for religious or ethnic reasons. Iran is so deeply involved in Afghan affairs that there can be no satisfactory settlement without its help and approval. Yet, rather than engaging with Iran on Afghanistan and other matters, the United States has followed Israel’s lead in seeking to cripple it with sanctions, subverting it wherever possible, and demonising it as a grave danger to US interests and to mankind at large. Only Iran’s hard-line clerics have benefitted from this aggressive policy. In the grip of special interest groups, Washington seems incapable of thinking clearly about Iran. Its hopes for a satisfactory outcome in Afghanistan must suffer accordingly.

Then there is Pakistan. The United States has treated Pakistan shabbily – violating its sovereignty with clandestine operations (like the killing of Osama bin Laden) and with its numerous drone attacks against Islamic militants, which inevitably result in civilian deaths. The result has been to arouse fierce hostility toward the United States. The country has been gravely destabilised by the US ‘war on terror’ and has had to confront a ferocious terrorist assault at home largely because it has seemed to be fighting the United States’ war against its own people.

The United States gives Pakistan billions of dollars a year to fight jihadis and lectures it for its ambivalent attitude towards such Islamic militants, refusing to recognise that Pakistan feels it needs the militants to protect itself against Indian encroachment in Afghanistan once the United States withdraws. Like Iran, Pakistan is essential to any Afghan settlement. But it will play its part in reaching one only if its interests are understood and addressed.

And finally, there have been the shortcomings in policy toward Afghanistan itself. Karzai and his ruling group of warlords and corrupt businessmen have been spoiled rotten by the billions of dollars that the United States has poured into Afghanistan. The deluge of funds has become addictive. Much of the money has been wasted or has ended up in private pockets. Karzai’s puzzle is how to survive without this bonanza. He seems to hope that renting military bases to the United States in the future will keep the money flowing.  

Surely, though, a well-directed aid programme aimed at providing jobs for young Afghans by developing the country’s extensive mineral resources would be a better way to spend US tax dollars. Certainly better than waging a destructive and increasingly pointless war.

Patrick Seale is a British writer on the Middle East and author of 'The Struggle for Syria' and 'Asad of Syria: The Struggle for the Middle East'. He has reported for Reuters and The Observer among other publications.