As it braces for its presidential election in April, Afghanistan finds itself at another critical juncture, with its unity and territorial integrity at stake after 35 years of relentless war. Can the country finally escape the cycle of militancy and foreign intervention that has plagued it for more than three decades?
Two key questions are shaping discussions about Afghanistan’s post-2014 trajectory. The first concerns the extent to which Pakistan will interfere in Afghan affairs, such as by aiding and abetting the Afghan Taliban and its main allies, including the Haqqani network and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s militia. This will depend on whether the United States conditions its generous aid to cash-strapped Pakistan on non-interference in Afghanistan.
The second question is whether U.S.-led NATO forces will continue to play any role in Afghanistan. It is no secret that U.S. President Barack Obama wants to maintain an American military presence in the country – a reversal of his declaration in 2009 that the U.S. sought no military bases there.
Indeed, for several months, the U.S. has been involved in painstaking negotiations with the Afghan government to conclude a bilateral security agreement that would enable the U.S. to maintain bases in Afghanistan virtually indefinitely. What was supposed to be an endgame for Afghanistan has turned into a new game over America’s basing strategy.
But despite having finalized the terms of the agreement, Obama failed to persuade Afghanistan’s outgoing president, Hamid Karzai, to sign it. That means that America’s role in the country can be settled only after the new Afghan president assumes office in May.
And the election’s outcome is far from certain. While all eight Afghan presidential candidates claim to support the security accord, this may offer little comfort to the U.S., given that most of the candidates have directly opposed U.S. interests in the past – not to mention that several of them are former or current warlords.
Moreover, there remains the question of how a residual American-led force, even a sizable one, could make a difference in Afghanistan, given that a much larger force failed to secure a clear victory over the past 13 years. Obama has offered no answer.
Nonetheless, there is strong bipartisan support in the U.S. for maintaining military bases in Afghanistan, as a means of projecting hard power, and the increasingly charged confrontation between the U.S. and Russia over Ukraine has boosted that support considerably. In fact, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice explicitly linked Russia’s actions in Ukraine with “talk of withdrawal from Afghanistan, whether the security situation warrants it or not.”
According to Rice, anything less than a residual force of 10,000 American troops will send the message that the U.S. is not serious about helping to stabilize Afghanistan – a message that would further embolden Russian President Vladimir Putin. What she does not seem to recognize is that America’s deteriorating ties with Russia – a key conduit for U.S. military supplies to Afghanistan – could undercut its basing strategy.
The U.S. is clearly convinced that a continued military presence in Afghanistan is in its interests. But what would it mean for Afghanistan, a country that has long suffered at the hands of homegrown militant groups and foreign forces alike?
Afghanistan has been at war since 1979, when Soviet forces launched a disastrous eight-year military campaign against multinational insurgent groups. That intervention – together with the U.S. and Saudi governments’ provision of arms to Afghanistan’s anti-Soviet guerrillas through Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency – helped spread militancy and terrorism, which the subsequent U.S. military intervention has kept alive. As a result, Afghanistan is now at risk of becoming partitioned along ethnic and tribal lines, with militia- or warlord-controlled enclaves proliferating.
In short, foreign involvement in Afghanistan has so far failed to produce positive results. That is why Afghanistan’s political and security transition would be better served by focusing on three key internal factors.
First, free and fair elections that are widely viewed as reflecting the will of the Afghan people, to chart a peaceful future.
Second, the ability of Karzai’s successor to unite disparate ethnic and political groups – a tall order that can be filled only by a credible and widely respected leader.
And third, the government’s success in building up Afghanistan’s multiethnic security forces.
How the presidential election plays out is crucial. If threats and violence from the Taliban prevent too many Afghans from casting their vote, the legitimacy of the outcome could be questioned, possibly inciting even more turmoil, which Afghanistan’s fledging security forces would struggle to contain.
To be sure, the security forces have, so far, mostly held their ground, deterring assassinations and keeping Kabul largely secure. But they have also failed to make significant gains, and U.S. plans to cut aid will make progress even more difficult. Unable to sustain the current force with reduced aid, the Afghan government will have to try to make it “leaner and meaner.” Whether it will succeed is far from certain.
That only increases the pressure to maintain a foreign military presence, even though it is unlikely to bring peace to Afghanistan. In fact, the risk of becoming locked in a protracted, low-intensity war against militancy and warlordism is likely to outweigh any geopolitical advantages that the U.S. would gain from military bases in the country. After all, the terrorist havens and command-and-control centers for the Afghan insurgency are located in Pakistan – undercutting the U.S. military effort to rout the Afghan Taliban since 2001.
All of this points to a clear conclusion: Afghanistan’s future must finally be put in the hands of Afghans. Outside resources should be devoted to building the governing capacity needed to keep the country united and largely peaceful.
Brahma Chellaney is a professor of strategic studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research. THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration with Project Syndicate © (www.project-syndicate.org).