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Out of Afghanistan

November 10, 2012

OVER the course of history, many foreign armies have entered Afghanistan; almost all have left in disarray or defeat. America’s exit will be no exception.

In the run up to the US presidential polls, Vice President Biden said: “We are leaving [Afghanistan] … there are no ifs, ands or buts.” In his re-election victory speech, President Obama declared: “a decade of war is ending”. The promise of an American withdrawal by 2014 is likely to be fulfilled.

It is possible that in the post-election period, some Washington hardliners, military and civilian, may demand a final attempt to wrest at least some form of military or political advantage, to salve the emotional if not strategic wounds inflicted on America by the Afghan adventure. They are unlikely to succeed. Nor will they change the American public consensus that it is time for the US to depart from the ‘graveyard of empires’.

The questions that remain to be answered are: first, under what conditions will US-Nato forces withdraw from Afghanistan? And, second, what will happen in and around Afghanistan after America’s departure?

Some in Washington may still hope that, perhaps with Pakistan’s support, the US could bring the Afghan Taliban to the negotiating table. This appears increasingly unlikely for several reasons. Some months ago, in exchange for a commitment to a full withdrawal, the Taliban may have accepted America’s three conditions for a deal — disavowal of their links to Al Qaeda; respect for women’s rights; and, reciprocally, a ceasefire.

Now it is probably too late. The US and the UN Security Council have branded the Haqqani group a “terrorist organisation”, thus ruling out negotiations with the most effective arm of the Afghan insurgency.

With the US and Nato’s political compulsion to leave as soon as possible, all the Taliban need to do is to wait. Nor can they be impressed with the Afghan National Army’s capacity or will to defend whatever government is left behind by the departing US.

Thus, withdrawal is unlikely to be accompanied by a peace settlement with the Taliban insurgency.

As a second-best option, the US may desire a cessation of hostilities during withdrawal. This is achievable. All or most of the Afghan parties may see a halt in hostilities as being in their interest to conserve manpower and firepower, or as a first step towards an internal political settlement after the US departure.

But will the US agree to stop the drone strikes, including against the Haqqanis? Who will mediate a ceasefire with the Haqqanis without violating the Security Council’s injunctions? Will the Afghan factions that are close to Tehran cooperate in facilitating a peaceful American exit from Afghanistan?

Unless these obstacles are overcome, violence will accompany the US-Nato withdrawal. Whether such violence will escalate or diminish will depend considerably on the post-withdrawal strategic objectives of the US, the several Afghan parties and Afghanistan’s immediate and near neighbours.

The US will no doubt want to prevent the Taliban from gaining power in Kabul and even in the Pakhtun-majority areas. For a time at least, a core of the Afghan National Army could prop up the leadership left behind in Kabul. Some in Washington may press for a de facto division of Afghanistan between a US-friendly and peaceful north and a turbulent Taliban-controlled south.

The proposal to leave behind a small contingent of US Special Forces may be revived. The bogey of ‘Pakhtunistan’ could be resuscitated to add to the pressures Pakistan already faces in Balochistan. India could assume an overt military role in Afghanistan. If confronted by such scenarios, Pakistan would have no incentive to assist in easing the pain of America’s departure.

The course of events during the US withdrawal will obviously have a significant impact on the future political and strategic shape of Afghanistan and indeed the region. But the power dynamics will change significantly once the foreign forces have left.

It is quite possible that, left to themselves, the several Afghan parties may display political maturity and find ways to construct a political structure that is generally acceptable to all or most of them. The prospects for such a positive outcome would be greatly enhanced by the support and cooperation of Afghanistan’s two immediate neighbours — Pakistan and Iran.

There are unconfirmed reports that Pakistan has initiated a quiet dialogue with elements of the Northern Alliance as well as with Iran to promote such a positive outcome. The challenge for Pakistan’s diplomacy is to trade its ability to facilitate a largely peaceful and dignified US withdrawal for credible US support for a Pakistan-backed endeavour to construct a viable structure of peace in Afghanistan.

If such efforts fail, the conflict within the country would continue. It may be mostly a north-south struggle as before the US intervention. Or, like the early 1990s, it may turn into a Hobbesian war of “all against all”.

The consequences may be catastrophic for Pakistan also. The Pakistani Taliban’s attacks on Pakistan and subversion in Balochistan and other frontier regions would continue, with Pakistan still being blamed for continuing conflict in Afghanistan.

Relations between Kabul and Islamabad would reach a breaking point. Pakistan’s strategic and military challenges, on its west and east, would intensify. The danger of a regional conflict would escalate.

Thus, of all the players in the Great Game that will follow America’s exit, Pakistan has the largest stake in promoting peace in Afghanistan. This must be pursued with strategic clarity and political courage. This endeavour needs to be initiated now while Pakistan still holds some high cards in the game which has already commenced.

The writer is a former Pakistan ambassador to the UN.