No End in Sight to the War-Spawned Chaos Engulfing Afghanistan
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Cutting a Deal
As complex as the situation looks, a solution is possible, but only if the White House changes course. First, the “shoot and talk” nonsense must end immediately, General Dunford’s hallucinations not withstanding. If the United States couldn’t smother the insurgency during the surge, how can it do so now with fewer troops? All the shooting will do is get a lot more people killed—most of them Afghan soldiers, police, and civilians caught in the crossfire—and sabotage any potential talks.
According to Lieven, Taliban leaders are far more realistic about the current situation than is the White House. Last July, Lieven and a group of academics met “leading figures close to the Taliban” during a trip to the Persian Gulf. He says there was “a widespread recognition within the Taliban that while they can maintain a struggle in the south and east of Afghanistan indefinitely,” they could never conquer the whole country. Further, “in their own estimate,” they have the support of about 30 percent of population. A recent Asia Foundation poll came to a similar conclusion.
While the Taliban refuses to negotiate with the Karzai government, Lieven says its representatives told the delegation, “there can be no return to the ‘pure’ government of mullahs,” and “most strikingly, they said that the Taliban might be prepared to agree to the US bases remaining until 2024.” The latter compromise will not make the Iranians, Chinese, or Russians very happy—not to mention Hezb-i-Islami—but it reflects a deep-seated philosophy in Afghan politics: figure out a way to cut a deal.
The Taliban’s rejection of talks with the Kabul government means that going ahead with next year’s presidential election is probably a bad idea. An all-Afghan constitutional convention would be a better idea, with elections postponed until after a new constitution is in place.
There are numerous issues that could sink a final agreement because there are many players with multiple agendas. Regardless, those agendas will have to be addressed, even if not quite to everyone’s satisfaction. And everyone has to sit at the table, since those who are excluded have the power to torpedo the entire endeavor. This means all the combatants, as well as Iran, India, China, Russia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan.
And the White House needs to get off its butt. Afghan President Karzai, just returned from an arms buying spree in India, asked New Delhi to increase its presence in Afghanistan. This will hardly be popular with Pakistan and China, and Islamabad can make serious mischief if it wants to.
The ambush in Pakistan brings to mind Karl Marx’s famous dictum about history: it happens first as tragedy, then as farce.
The first time this happened was during Britain’s first Anglo-Afghan War (1839-42), when Afghans overran an East India Company army retreating from Kabul. Out of 4,500 soldiers and 12,000 civilians, a single assistant surgeon made it back to Jalalabad.
The most recent ambush certainly had an element of farce about it. Four masked gunmen on two motorbikes forced the trucks to stop, sprinkled them with gasoline, and set the vehicles ablaze. One driver received a minor injury.
There is no need for a chaos-engulfed finale to the Afghan War. There is no reason to continue the bloodshed, which all the parties recognize will not alter the final outcome a whit. It is time for the White House to step up and do the right thing and end one of the bloodiest wars in recent history.