Tidy or messy endgame? - Dr Maleeha Lodhi - Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Source : www.thenews.com.pk

The writer is a former envoy to the US and the UK, and a former editor of The News.

The message from last week's Kabul conference was unmistakable. It was the desire signalled by virtually all the NATO nations to embark on a path of 'managed withdrawal' from Afghanistan. But the unanswered question is whether an orderly exit can be achieved on the basis of the present faltering strategy. Can the transition of power take place absent a negotiated political settlement?

The conference set 2014 as the target for handing over security responsibilities to the Afghan national army. This was aimed as much at reassuring sceptical and war-weary publics in the west about the future of a foundering US-led Afghan mission as to indicate to President Hamid Karzai what the coalition expected of him.

The carefully choreographed conference attended by representatives of about seventy countries announced hopeful deadlines and ambitious pledges. But this did not mask the uncertainty about Afghanistan's future which was heightened rather than diminished because key questions were left unanswered.

One indication of this was the fact that the 2014 deadline was understood differently by NATO leaders. Was this a conditions-based deadline contingent on progress made by that year or a time limit? Tactical divergences were reported among coalition members on how accelerated or phased the troop drawdown should be and the speed of the handover.

A reference to the transition on a province-by-province basis that could begin at the end of this year was apparently removed from the conference's final communiqué at the insistence of the new NATO commander in Afghanistan General David Petraeus who wants more time to subdue the insurgency. European nations had wanted the reference so that the provinces could be announced at a summit in Lisbon in November.

The conference did little to allay regional and international concerns about whether by 2014 the Afghan national army and police will be capable enough to take charge of security duties. Serious problems continue to plague efforts to build a professional and representative army. These include inadequate Pashtun representation, high rates of desertion, illiteracy and drug-addiction among recruits and a level of competence that has fallen short of the target. However, even if in the next four years Afghan security forces can miraculously be built up to act independently of western forces it will take more than this to ensure an orderly endgame.

A viable exit strategy can only be assured by a negotiated political solution that ends a war that has now entered its tenth year. This turns on talks with the Taliban, which President Karzai has sought by announcing his 'reconciliation' plan. But while Washington has backed the re-integration process – to wean away low-level Taliban foot soldiers – it is still not ready for talks with the key elements of the insurgency despite its declared support for Afghan-led reconciliation efforts.

The Obama administration has spelled out the terms for 'reconciliation': disavowal of Al Qaeda, cease fighting against the Afghan government and respect for the Constitution. But it has remained purposively vague on whether these are pre-conditions or part of a reciprocal deal that can emerge from negotiations.

While Washington struggles to evolve its position on a 'reconciliation' process it remains intent on pursuing a strategy of military escalation in southern Afghanistan. Dictated by its military commanders the planned action seeks to establish battlefield ascendancy in order to strengthen the hand for talks later with the insurgents.

The appointment of General Petraeus as allied commander in Afghanistan has further reaffirmed this approach. Petraeus' views are more hard line than those of his predecessor. He is firmly opposed to 'reconciliation' before military gains are made by ramping up the campaign in the Taliban's heartland. This is aimed at creating the so-called "conditions" to force the Taliban into talks and enable negotiations from "a position of strength".

Preparations are underway to pursue what is a tactical goal despite the widespread recognition that a military victory is not possible. Meanwhile there are more vocal doubts in Washington itself – in Congress, the media and within the administration – about whether the military option being pressed by General Petraeus can succeed. Few among America's NATO allies believe the much-postponed Kandahar operation – whatever the tactical changes made to this by Petraeus – can alter the course of war or secure the scaled-down US goal to "reverse the momentum" of the Taliban. Even America's closest ally Britain does not see this as a likely outcome.

In fact a string of recent setbacks point in the opposite direction and signify how grim the prospects are for progress because of both military and political reasons. These indicators include a) the dramatic rise in the coalition death toll – twice this year over last year – in the face of a strengthening insurgency; b) the failure to fully secure Marjah, a small area in Helmand; c) the collapse in public support: over fifty per cent Americans are now against the war and 153 Democrats recently voted in Congress for a firmer withdrawal deadline. A record seventy-seven per cent of the British public want their troops out of Afghanistan; and d) the sacking of General Stanley McCrystal which signified deep rifts among Obama's national security team and the lack of consensus over the course to follow in what is now America's longest war.

The political pressure to show "results" to shore up crumbling political support for the war effort seems in part to be behind an approach that is counting on a last-shot military operation to produce an outcome that can serve as the basis for a 'dignified withdrawal'.

Meanwhile there is endless discussion about what shape talks with the insurgents can take, how these can be undertaken and the mechanism for negotiations. Questions of modalities will be debated ad nauseam. But until the US shows readiness to abandon the path of military escalation and opt for a political settlement the Afghan endgame can turn into a messy affair holding out the prospect of chaos.

It may be that President Obama wants to put off taking such a decision until after crucial mid-term Congressional elections in November. The entire House of Representatives is up for election and a third of the Senate. Given the present anti-incumbency mood among voters at a time of economic pessimism the Democratic Party risks losing control of the House even if it manages to retain the Senate.

The war in Afghanistan is not an issue in the upcoming election which is expected to be dominated by the economy and the rising jobless numbers. As President Obama is on the defensive on these issues he may want to avoid another issue that the Republicans could exploit to attack him for being "weak" on national security or "too compromising" towards America's enemies, themes that the right-wing has been playing on.

Moving towards negotiating with the Taliban now rather than later would therefore magnify the political risk for him. Dialogue with the insurgents may be easier for the Administration to sell to the American public once the military option has been exhausted. The review of Afghan strategy that President Obama has announced for December may then offer the opportunity to shift gear.

Other than these political factors there may be another consideration for the US: how to avoid the impression of defeat when switching course from a military to a political strategy of accommodation with the Taliban. Persisting with a failed policy hardly addresses this dilemma. Nor does this in any way assure a tidy exit of Western forces from Afghanistan.

Only a negotiated settlement can do this and the sooner efforts to forge this get underway the better the chances of an organised withdrawal. Such a settlement will not be easy. If reconciliation is to succeed it will have to overcome the opposition to such a plan from among Afghanistan's non-Pashtuns. Such a settlement will also need to elicit the backing of the neighbouring powers and their agreement to guarantee it. The time to start on this process is now, not after elusive battlefield success.

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