A Taliban militant speaks after the killing of Pakistani soldiers in this still image taken from video obtained by Reuters.
With the stage set for secret US-Taliban talks in Qatar, the White House strategy for a phased exit from war-ravaged Afghanistan is now couched in nice-sounding terms like ‘reconciliation’ and ‘transition to 2014’. These terms hide more than they reveal. In seeking a Faustian bargain with the medieval Taliban, President Barack Obama risks repeating the very mistakes of US policy that have come to haunt regional and international security.
Since coming to office, Obama has pursued an Afghan War strategy summed up in just four words: surge, bribe and run. The military mission has now entered the ‘run’ part, or what euphemistically is being called the ‘transition to 2014’.
The central objective at present is to cut a deal with the Taliban so that the US and its Nato partners exit the “Graveyard of Empires” without losing face. This deal-making is being dressed up as ‘reconciliation’, with Qatar, Germany and Britain getting lead roles to help facilitate a settlement with the Taliban.
Yet what stands out is how little the US has learned from past mistakes. In some critical respects, it is actually beginning to repeat the past mistakes, whether by creating or funding new local militias in Afghanistan or striving to cut a deal with the Taliban. As in the covert war it waged against the nearly nine-year Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan, so too in the current overt war, US policy has been driven by short-term interests.
To be sure, any president must work to extricate his country from a protracted war. Obama thus is right to seek an end to the war. He, however, blundered by laying out his cards in public and emboldening the enemy.
Within weeks of assuming office, Obama publicly declared his intent to exit Afghanistan, before he even asked his team to work out a strategy. A troop surge that lasted up to 2010 was designed not to militarily rout the Taliban but to strike a political deal with the enemy from a position of strength. Yet even before the surge began, its purpose was undercut by the exit plan. This was followed by a publicly unveiled troop drawdown, stretching from 2011 to 2014.
A withdrawing power that first announces a phased exit and then pursues deal-making with the enemy undermines its regional leverage. It speaks for itself that the sharp deterioration in US ties with the Pakistani military has occurred after the drawdown timetable was unveiled. The phased exit has encouraged the Pakistani generals to step up support to the Taliban. Worse, there is still no clear US strategy on how to ensure that the endgame does not undermine the interests of the free world or further destabilise the region.
US envoy Marc Grossman, who visited New Delhi last Friday for consultations, has already held a series of secret meetings with the Taliban over more than a year. Qatar has been chosen as the seat of fresh US-Taliban negotiations so as to keep the still-sceptical Afghan government at arm’s length (despite the pretence of ‘Afghan-led’ talks) and to insulate the Taliban negotiators from Pakistani and Saudi pressures. Meanwhile, even as a civil-military showdown in Pakistan compounds Washington’s regional challenges, the new US containment push and energy sanctions against Iran threaten to inject greater turbulence into Afghanistan.
In truth, US policy is coming full circle again on the ISI-fathered Taliban, in whose birth the CIA had played midwife. The US acquiesced in the Taliban’s ascension to power in 1996 and turned a blind eye as that thuggish militia, in league with the ISI, fostered narco-terrorism and swelled the ranks of the Afghan war alumni waging transnational terrorism. With 9/11, however, the chickens came home to roost. In declaring war on the Taliban, US policy came full circle.
Now, US policy, with its frantic search for a deal with the Taliban, is coming another full circle. The Qatar-based negotiations indeed highlight why the US political leadership has deliberately refrained from decapitating the Taliban. The US military has had ample opportunities (and still has) to eliminate the Taliban’s Rahbari Shura, or leadership council, often called the Quetta Shura because it escaped to the Pakistani city.
Yet, tellingly, the US has not carried out a single drone, air or ground strike in or around Quetta. All the US strikes have occurred farther north in Pakistan’s tribal Waziristan region, although the leadership of the Afghan Taliban or its allied groups like the Haqqani network and the Hekmatyar band is not holed up there.
When history is written, the legacy of the Nato war in Afghanistan will mirror the legacy of the US occupation of Iraq – to leave an ethnically fractured nation. Just as Iraq today stands ethnically partitioned in a de facto sense, it will be difficult to establish a government in Kabul post-2014 whose writ runs across Afghanistan. And just as the 1973 US-North Vietnam agreements were negotiated by shutting out the Saigon regime – in consequence of which South Vietnam unintentionally disappeared – the US today is keeping the Afghan government out of the talks’ loop even as it compels President Hamid Karzai to lend support and seems ready to meet a Taliban demand to transfer five incarcerated Taliban leaders out of Guantanamo Bay.
Afghanistan, however, is not Vietnam. An end to Nato combat operations will not mean the end of the war, because the enemy will target Western interests wherever they may be. The fond US hope to regionally contain terrorism promises to keep the Af-Pak belt as a festering threat to regional and global security. This is a chilling message for the country that has borne the brunt of the rise of international terrorism – India.
Brahma Chellaney is Professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research.