The players involved in the conflict in Afghanistan have all concluded that neither side can achieve a military victory and that it will end in some other way, probably through a negotiated solution. Since each of them has different goals, this end game is likely to be both confusing and complicated. What is likely to make it even more so is that within each of the parties involved there are factions and interests that have differing ideas on the desired end state and, therefore, the appropriate tactic to achieve it.
With so many players and sub-players, and so many competing agendas, it would be foolhardy to try and predict how this end game will play out (although it is possible to foresee the near-term moves and their probable fate, as well as some of the major forks likely to appear in the road ahead). The best approach is to look at the parties involved, their goals, and how they are likely to try and achieve them.
The mainstream viewpoint in the US administration, espoused by Secretary Gates and the military hierarchy, accepts the inevitability of a negotiated settlement but wants one that preserves a friendly government in Kabul that continues to lean on the US for support. If Taliban participation is unavoidable, it must be as limited as possible. They believe the insurgency has not yet been weakened enough to accept this kind of a settlement, and thus further military action is necessary. Hence the forthcoming Kandahar operation, as well as renewed pressure on Pakistan to complete the military takeover of its tribal areas. President Obama is going along with this policy for now but does not appear committed to it; he could abandon it if the approach does not work as successfully as its proponents promise.
Another school of thought in the administration (possibly including VP Biden) could be termed the minimalist position: it would agree to any kind of a negotiated settlement between the Afghan parties that would enable the US to get out of there expeditiously. They would like Hamid Karzai to pursue this option as soon as possible and get the best deal he can. There is also still a maximalist position in the US, advanced by those groups who believe the US should dominate the world with its military power, and who were the original backers of the Iraq and Afghan wars. This group advocates the continuation of the war until the Taliban are defeated and al-Qaeda is eradicated from the region. Its supporters in the administration maintain a low profile since this position is unlikely to ever become administration policy.
NATO and other European countries in Afghanistan appear to have had their fill of this ‘imperial’ adventure. In spite of all the brave talk from some of their leaders, most of them are now closet subscribers to the minimalist position.
In Afghanistan, President Karzai has no illusions about his standing with the US. He knows the current friendliness (even deference) being shown to him is only because the US could not get rid of him in (and after) the recent elections, and now has no other choice. Aware of the danger of being dumped at the first available opportunity, he realizes that his future survival in a position of power depends on arriving at an early settlement with the insurgency that would bring them into the government and thus end the war. The first step is the grand jirga he proposes to convene shortly, which he expects will open the way to negotiations with the leaders of the insurgency and an eventual ‘Afghan’ settlement of the conflict.
The other influential faction in the Afghan government consists of the warlords and leaders of the old Northern Alliance. They are well content with their present status (which gives them a free hand in their own areas as well as plenty of opportunity to add to their wealth) but realize it cannot continue. They are also aware that the US (and ISAF) will be departing sooner rather than later. Thus, even though there is no love lost between them and the insurgents, they are likely to back Karzai’s efforts to arrive at a settlement with them based on a sharing of power, in the hope of preserving much of what they currently have.
A dark horse on the government side is the leadership of the budding Afghan army. These generals, appointed to their positions by the current power brokers, could become independent players if no political settlement has been arrived at by the time there was a significant reduction of foreign troops in the country, and a corresponding increase in the role of their army. In the interim, they are likely to go along with whatever Karzai attempts.
The Afghan insurgency comprises three main factions: the Taliban, the Haqqani group, and the followers of Hikmatyar. Though these three groups have different interests and agendas, they are all Pashtun/Afghan/Islamist nationalists and all have a common primary goal: the removal of foreign troops (and, even, influence) from Afghanistan. With the Obama ‘surge’ of US troops into Afghanistan, it became clear to the insurgency that they could no longer hope to force foreign troops out of the country through military pressure. The chances of just waiting them out through a prolonged military stalemate are being rapidly reduced with the increasing influence of the US on Pakistan’s policies. In the conduct of their operations, the insurgents are heavily dependent on their bases in the tribal and border areas of Pakistan and the denial or impairment of their use would weaken them significantly. They are thus being forced to move towards a negotiated settlement.
The Hikmatyar faction is the weakest of the three, with the least outside support and the weakest links to the other groups in the insurgency. Fearful of being left out of any peace negotiations, it has already made formal proposals to the Karzai government for a settlement. The largest insurgent group, the Taliban, has held some indirect talks with representatives of Hamid Karzai and some intermediaries. However, when some elements in the group began to get serious about negotiations (without Pakistani permission), the Pakistan military (with perhaps the blessings of the US) put a swift end to them by arresting the Taliban military chief, Mullah Baradar. The point made is likely to inhibit any such future moves by the Taliban unless they had the blessings of Pakistan. The Haqqani faction is much more dependent on Pakistani goodwill, since its main force is based in the Pakistan tribal area. It has not made any move to negotiate so far, and is unlikely to do so until permitted by Pakistan.
Within Pakistan, there are two main players: the government and the military. The overriding aim of the Zardari government is to keep the United States happy so that US and international aid money keeps flowing in. This ongoing and large-scale infusion enables the government to remain in power (as well as materially increasing the personal wealth of the rulers and their henchmen). However, their ability to influence Pakistan’s policy and actions relating to Afghanistan is limited since this area is firmly controlled by the military, principally the army. Currently, though, the government has a little more clout because the army chief is to retire later this year, and the government will pick his successor (or, possibly, grant him an extension).
The Pakistan military is the decisive voice in determining the policies that affect the country’s security; thus, Afghan policy is their domain, as is the scale and scope of military operations in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan. The military’s main concern is the threat they perceive from India, part of which is the danger of an Afghanistan that is under Indian influence, or hostile to Pakistan. This makes it imperative that the outcome of the present conflict should be a government in Kabul that is friendly, even dependent. Hamid Karzai is distrusted because of his past ties and present friendship with India. Conversely, the Taliban and the Haqqanis have old ties to Pakistan, and are greatly preferred as future rulers of Afghanistan. (Hikmatyar was the original favourite of the Pakistani establishment (and the USA) during the anti-Soviet jihad, but those links faded long ago). As an interim stage, the military would accept a coalition government between all these Afghan parties, but not one in which its candidates had only a token presence, which is the goal of the mainstream faction in the US administration.
An intricate game is being played out between the Pakistan military and the US administration. The latter needs the military to take effective action against the insurgency in order to weaken it significantly. The military is dependent on the US for financial and material aid to maintain and build its combat power, but, if it fully complies with US demands, it will jeopardise its strategic goals in Afghanistan. The rise of the Pakistani Taliban came as a godsend, and has enabled the military to put off serious operations against the Afghan insurgency while it dealt with its own rebels. This stage is ending, and the military is now reduced to promising that it will widen its operations “soon”. The US, for its part, has sought to make it easier for this to happen by agreeing that Pakistan’s interests should be considered in a negotiated Afghan settlement (as well as allowing the military to use some of the US aid to bolster its anti-India capability). Neither side is taking these mutual assurances at face value. US pressure (supported by the Pakistan government) will continue to build up on the military, while the latter will continue to try and avoid carrying out operations that would damage its own hand in the Afghan poker game.
So, how will this end game in Afghanistan play out?
It is possible to discern some of the likely moves in the near term. President Karzai will hold his grand jirga, and it will likely call upon him to initiate negotiations with the insurgency for a settlement. Since the Pakistan military will not want these to take place at this stage of the game (nor, for that matter, would the US), the insurgents will not respond. Except, perhaps, for Hikmatyar, but that would not make a material difference.
Gen McChrystal will segue into his Kandahar operation, but this is unlikely to prove any more effective than the Marjah one. That would leave Pakistan military operations against the insurgents as the only means of bringing about the conditions that would lead to the US mainstream’s preferred end state, so pressure on the military will ratchet up. They will try and put these off for as long as they possibly can, in the hope that developments in the US will push Obama into adopting the alternative minimalist solution (that is, any negotiated settlement that would allow the withdrawal of US troops as early as feasible). This kind of negotiation is one the military would find more to its liking and would, accordingly, encourage. It is an open question who would fold first: the Pakistan military or Obama’s backing of the mainstream US position.
Looming over these developments are other possible regional events that would reduce Afghanistan to a minor sideshow. Pakistan’s intractable organic problems could spin out of control, leading to serious instability and, possibly, a radical change in governance. And then there is the ‘all-bets-are off’ scenario that would follow an attack on Iran. Either would reduce to irrelevance all these games that the various players are currently playing on the Afghan board.
© FB Ali (May 2010)