Watching the United States stumble from one bad policy into another over the 10 years of the Afghan war, one went through a whole gamut of emotions ─ bemusement, puzzlement, anger, sorrow ─ but ending up with bewilderment overpowering the others. How could this great empire, with all the resources of knowledge, experience, intellect, research and analysis at its command, get it so consistently wrong? How could this “greatest democracy in the world” allow special interests to take over its policy-making to the grave detriment of the true interests of the country and its people?
Part of the answer was provided by Andrew Bacevich in a recent article. He wrote: "Strategy is a quintessential American Century word, ostensibly connoting knowingness and sophistication. Whether working in the White House, the State Department, or the Pentagon, strategists promote the notion that they can anticipate the future and manage its course ...... Strategy is actually a fraud perpetrated by those who covet power and are intent on concealing from the plain folk the fact that the people in charge are flying blind”.
Another part of the answer comes from what happened to Bacevich. A former army officer, now a professor of history and international relations, he is one of the sanest people in America writing about current affairs. In recognition of that his writings were always welcome on the OpEd pages of the principal newspapers and in periodicals ─ until he started pointing out the folly in many of the policies being pursued by the US. He was then dropped like a brick. The only ‘experts’ who are now featured in both the MSM and scholarly journals are those who push the reigning narrative. Presumably, they are the only ones now read or heard in the corridors of power.
That is why it was such a pleasant surprise to come across an article that offered a remarkably clear-eyed view of the reality of the situation in Afghanistan today, and proposed a way out for the United States.
Not surprisingly, it was not written by an American. The author is Anatol Lieven, professor in the War Studies Department of King’s College, London, and a fellow of the New America Foundation. He also has an excellent claim to be regarded as the foremost Western expert on Afghanistan and Pakistan (I certainly think so). His article in the New York Review of Books deserves to be read in full. However, for those who cannot do so I give below some of its highlights.
This is how Lieven depicts the US’s current situation in Afghanistan: “The United States and its allies today find themselves in a position in Afghanistan similar to that of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, after Mikhail Gorbachev decided on military withdrawal by a fixed deadline. They are in a race against the clock to build up a regime and army that will survive their withdrawal, while either seeking a peace agreement with the leaders of the insurgent forces or splitting off their more moderate, pragmatic, and mercenary elements and making an agreement with them”.
Dr Lieven does not see much of a future for the plans for a viable Afghan regime and military to take over and hold the country (with some military and a lot of financial support provided by the US and its allies) after the West leaves. Noting the weaknesses of the Karzai government (and its possible successors), Lieven believes that, following a US withdrawal, “it is highly probable that government-equipped military forces of one group or another will sooner or later stage a takeover of much of the country. The willingness of the US Congress and public to go on subsidizing Afghanistan would then be gravely undermined. If the coup were seen to be led by Tajik officers, there would be a counter-coup by Pashtun officers, and so on. If the Pashtun parts of the army lost in Kabul, many would defect to the Taliban—replicating in many ways the pattern of the civil wars that followed the Najibullah regime’s fall in 1992.The Afghan civil war would then intensify drastically and continue indefinitely”.
While such an outcome might not be unappealing to many US policy-makers, Lieven considers it extremely dangerous for the US, mainly because of its impact on the situation in Pakistan. As he puts it: “For it is no exaggeration to say that the tension between the Pakistani military and the United States now poses a threat to US security that dwarfs either the Taliban or the battered remnants of the old al-Qaeda”.
Lieven believes that the best way out of the Afghan imbroglio for the US is to come to a political settlement with the Taliban. However, he does not see much evidence that the US has come to this conclusion; its current parleys with the insurgents seem to be largely tactical.
Based on his conversations in recent years with people close to the Taliban leadership, Dr Lieven believes that “a peace settlement between the US, the administration in Kabul, and the Afghan Taliban would probably have to be based on some variant of the following elements:
(1) complete withdrawal of all US troops according to a fixed timetable;
(2) exclusion of al-Qaeda and other international terrorist groups from areas controlled by the Taliban;
(3) a government in Kabul headed—at least nominally—by men the Taliban would see as good Muslims and Afghan patriots;
(4) negotiations on a new Afghan constitution involving the Taliban and leading to the transfer of most powers from the center to the regions;
(5) de facto—though not formal—Taliban control of the region of Greater Kandahar, and by the Haqqanis of Greater Paktika;
(6) a return to the Taliban offer of 1999–2001 of a complete ban on opium poppy cultivation and heroin production in the areas under their control, in return for international aid”.
He thinks that there is a good chance of the Taliban agreeing to such an agreement; he also believes that a settlement along these lines would meet the security needs of Pakistan and would be acceptable to it. He concludes this topic by saying: “Even if the advantages of a settlement are recognized by Washington, how can the US sell it to its allies in Afghanistan, to President Karzai and his followers, and to the leaders of the non-Pashtun ethnic groups? The answer lies partly in assuring all the other parties that the US will continue to guarantee military support against any future Taliban move to attack Kabul or invade the north; and partly in the approaching train wreck that the simultaneous departure of both US troops and Karzai may cause”.
A train wreck that will not just be confined to Afghanistan, but will envelop the region, and especially Pakistan. For anyone to believe that such an outcome would enhance US security or interests would be sheer lunacy.