Afghanistan: No Way Forward

18.05.2017

As the Afghan state becomes increasingly fragile as a result of internal divisions and the resurgence of the Taliban, its future prospects remain bleak. US-Russian cooperation on the issue remains unlikely, while regional efforts that include Russia, China, India and Pakistan are hindered by the current Afghan government’s reliance on the US, Anatol Lieven, Professor at Georgetown University in Qatar, told www.valdaiclub.com.

The obvious point is that the Afghan state and army are incapable of defeating the Taliban and are in fact incapable of surviving without a significant continued US military presence. The level of troops left behind by Obama, while it has several times checked the Taliban, preventing them from taking particular cities, has not been sufficient to prevent the Taliban from taking larger and larger areas of the Afghan countryside.

Obviously, if this process continues, eventually, the cities will find themselves isolated and the state is liable to collapse. Hence the desire of the Pentagon to reinforce the troops in Afghanistan, not massively, but with a significant increase of Special Forces.

There is probably a desire to try to keep the US military bases in Afghanistan in the long run as a strategic stake vis-à-vis Russia, China and India in Central Asia. This is second in the interest of the Pentagon to the desire to avoid another serious humiliation like the rise of ISIS in Iraq or the defeat in Vietnam, which remains, more than 40 years later, something very vivid to the US military.

US-Russia Cooperation Unlikely

It is not easy to see how Afghanistan could become an area of US-Russia cooperation. On the one hand, Russia was historically an enemy of the Taliban, and so there ought to be room for cooperation there, but the US ostentatiously refused Russian help in Afghanistan after 9/11, and in fact, kept them out of Afghanistan as far as they could for many years.

Now that the US mission in Afghanistan is in such trouble, it is not so easy to see why Russia would have any stake in coming in to try to prop it up. In a very cautious and tentative way, Russia, as are other countries, is in fact pursuing contact with the Afghan Taliban, with a view to exploring the possibility of some kind of long-term deal with them if the present Kabul state eventually collapses.

Afghanistan is such a mess that except, to an extent for India, because of its anti-Pakistan agenda, no other states really want to get involved. The NATO countries, which helped America in Afghanistan after 9/11, including the ones that suffered significant casualties there, the British, the Canadians and the French, are absolutely opposed to reentering Afghanistan militarily. They just will not do it, the populations would not stand for it, the Afghan government is too discredited.

If America cannot get Britain to commit itself again to Afghanistan, it’s not easy to see them getting Russia to do so, at least not without concessions to Russia in other areas. This seemed possible initially, under Trump, but the US establishment has now dedicated itself to wrecking any reconciliation between America and Russia, of course, partly, in order also to wreck Donald Trump, but also out of what can only be called pathological hatred of Russia.

Without wider agreement, it is not easy to see how there could be agreement on Afghanistan.

Regional Agreement Necessary But Nearly Impossible

In the longer run, it is possible that the inclusion of India and Pakistan in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization could stabilize the situation in Afghanistan. I see the SCO, the China-Pakistan link, the Russia-India link or what’s left of it, and the Russia-China link as the most hopeful prospect for a regional agreement on Afghanistan. You really need a regional agreement on Afghanistan before you have peace inside of Afghanistan.

I am not at all sure how this can lead to anything while the existing Afghan regime continues and is backed up by the US. The problem is that the regime in Kabul is so weak and divided that it’s simply not capable of making a serious peace offer to the Taliban, even with the Taliban under its new leadership, since America killed its last leader, Mullah Mansour. The Taliban leadership does not seem to be in any mood for compromise.

Before one can have a peace settlement, obviously, there has to be agreement on the terms of that settlement. If the Afghan parties simply cannot agree on those terms, there is only a limited amount that outside countries can do. We’ve run into this before: after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, there were various plans for a peace settlement in Afghanistan, but the warring parties in Afghanistan, especially the Mujahedeen, simply would not agree to compromise.

There is a passage in the memoirs of a senior Pakistani official, Riaz Mohammad Khan, who was trying to work toward a peace settlement involving power sharing between the Communist government and the Mujahedeen. One of the Mujahedeen leaders said to him, “You don’t seem to understand, sir, the Afghan Mujahedeen have not been fighting for a share of power, the Afghan Mujahedeen have been fighting for power.”

If that is the attitude, obviously, compromise is not going to be easy or even possible.

How Sustainable is Afghanistan?

There are two issues with the long-term sustainability of the Afghan state. One is, essentially, financial: at the moment, one hundred percent of the Afghan security budget, between four and five billion dollars a year, is paid for by the United States; and somewhere in the region of 85 to 90 percent of the entire budget is paid for by international aid, chiefly from the United States.

The first question is how long the US will be prepared to do that. Perhaps, for a very long time, that is not a huge sum of money by US standards, and if the alternative is collapse and humiliation for the US, the US military will probably be prepared to pay that.

The second question is that the Afghan regime and the political scene in Kabul is bitterly divided along political and ethnic lines. That is a significant difference from the situation left behind by the Soviet Union in 1989, where the Afghan state was pretty much united under a pretty effective leader, Najibullah. That is simply not the case today.

Especially when the next Afghan presidential elections come along, remembering what happened in the last elections, there is the question of whether America can stitch together some kind of compromise or whether the losing side once again refuses to accept the result and gradually, the entire state disintegrates. That is probably the greatest risk to the Afghan state.

If the splits in the Afghan state get bad enough, you have actual fighting between different bits of the Afghan state, then there will be tremendous pressure within the United States to simply get out, whatever the Pentagon may want. That would then be the time when a regional consensus could contribute to a new settlement in Afghanistan, but the prospects are not optimistic.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.

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