The endgame continues to unfold in Afghanistan, as it has now for over a year. Writing in May last year, I had discussed the goals and objectives that the various players in the Afghan conflict (and the factions within each of them) wanted to achieve in this endgame. In this past year these goals haven’t changed, but the methods that the players are adopting of trying to achieve them have changed with the changing situation. This is an appropriate occasion to review how the endgame is being played now.
In May last year President Obama had sided with the war faction (led by Secretary Gates and the generals), and allowed them to pursue their strategy of sufficiently weakening the Taliban to permit the US to safely hand over the country to a friendly Afghan government and its army (backed by US airpower and SF). He had ruled against the ‘minimalist’ faction, led by VP Biden, that wanted an expeditious US pullout on the best terms that could be negotiated with the Taliban. Now, Obama has adopted the Biden goal as the ultimate aim, though, in typical fashion, he has compromised by letting the generals take one last kick at the can. However, he has given them firm deadlines for drawing down US forces in Afghanistan, and has clearly signalled that, for the US, the Afghan war is now finally over.
The ‘semi-victory’ that these two groups (including the US military) are now trying to achieve is through continuing operations to weaken the Taliban while simultaneously setting up talks with them. Their hope is that the Taliban will ultimately be so weakened that they will agree to a future Afghanistan in which the US continues to play a significant role. Part of this strategy is to cut out both Karzai and the Pakistanis from these negotiations, since they are likely to queer the US pitch by pushing their own agendas.
It may be worthwhile saying a few words on another group within the war faction — the COINistas — since they figure prominently in the public discourse on the issue. This group is composed of two types of people: the deluders and the deluded. The deluders, led by their chief, Gen Petraeus (the ‘re-inventor’ of COIN), tout this doctrine as the panacea that ‘won’ Iraq, and will now do the same in Afghanistan ─ if only allowed to work its magic. They know full well that it didn’t have anything to do with the improvement of the situation in Iraq, and that it is not even being applied in Afghanistan. The deluded go about spouting the nonsense that they are fed by the deluders (a rather sad recent example was Ambassador Eikenberry expressing outrage that President Karzai didn’t believe that the US was pouring out its blood and treasure in Afghanistan solely in order to build it into a strong and modern state).
Another player in this endgame is the Afghan government. Hamid Karzai’s aim remains to preserve as much of his power and position in the post-conflict set up as possible. He is very nervous about the US’s attempts at unilateral contacts with the Taliban, as he knows that the US would not hesitate to sacrifice him, if it became necessary. Since he has been unable to open his own channels to the insurgents, he has joined the Pakistani initiative to arrange a settlement involving only local players. To avoid prejudicing his position in such talks he is delaying signing an agreement with the US governing the postwar US status in Afghanistan.
Pakistan’s goal hasn’t changed either, namely, to have a friendly government ruling a postwar Afghanistan. However, they have had to change their tactics. Banking on a military stalemate in Afghanistan (partly due to their own inaction against the Afghan insurgents in their country) they had hoped that the US, when finally forced to withdraw its troops, would turn to them to safeguard its interests in Afghanistan. Having realized that the US was pursuing its own postwar plans without involving them, they have set aside their distrust of Karzai and have co-opted him to start a joint negotiating process with the Afghan insurgents (but excluding the US). They have also rejected US efforts to get them to move against the insurgency.
The Afghan insurgents find themselves in a peculiar position. On the one hand they are being subjected to increased US military pressure, on the other everyone, including the US, wants to talk peace with them. Their ultimate goals remain the same: getting the US military presence out of Afghanistan, and obtaining an adequate share in the postwar power structure (as a springboard to an ultimate takeover). What they are doing in furtherance of their goals is to counter the US military campaign while engaging in talks with the various parties (including, at a low level, with the US).
So, how will these various moves and counter-moves play out?
This will depend on how the fighting progresses. It is clear that the US cannot inflict sufficient damage on the insurgents to force them to agree to the peace terms that it is prepared to offer them. As I wrote in my previous piece, this would only be possible if the Pakistan military moved against the Afghan insurgents on its territory. The Osama bin Laden operation has ended that possibility; it has aroused so much anger against the US, not least in the military, that any such operation would risk a mutiny in the army. The Pakistan government and military command cannot afford to take that risk. In fact, they are hard put to it to resist pressure to end US drone strikes in the tribal areas.
The failure to achieve such military progress, coupled with the prospect of further unavoidable troop withdrawals, will force the US to join the Afghan-Pakistan peace initiative ─ as a junior partner. Since it is doubtful that it will like the kind of settlement that the parties will probably arrive at, it may well not subscribe to it, ending up with a situation similar to its position in Iraq today (but minus that monster embassy).
There is a distinct possibility that the final end of the US’s Afghan war will be similar to that of its Vietnam war (even unto the helicopters taking off from the roof of its embassy). It will then have learnt the lesson that the Soviet, the British, and many other empires have learnt earlier to their cost ─ there is neither victory nor glory to be had in the parched plains and barren hills of Afghanistan.