Never Forget Never: The Post-War Commitment to Afghanistan
An article in the New York Times described this years elections in Afghanistan as a great milestone for the country. As Afghans went to the polls to elect their President, it marked the first time that a peaceful transition of power had taken place in this country. It also marks the end of the United States’ thirteen year mission to end the rule of the Taliban and expel Al Qaeda from Afghanistan. Finally, it looks like Afghanistan can be considered a model for nation-building and peaceful establishment of friendly regimes.
The death of two journalist in the country cast a shadow over these positive movements toward a free and democratic rule. The looming threat of the Taliban and the struggle for the future of the country between old political rivals remain challenges for this fledgling democracy. However, with Russia emboldened by the Crimean Crisis, the United States once again has to shift its attention to more pressing needs.
The Current Situation
The current situation in Afghanistan is tense at the moment, with a government that is considered the third most corrupt in the world, a small faction of Afghan leaders who question the legitimacy of the government, and Pakistan’s increasing interests in the area. The country is still struggling to recover from the wars that have left its farms in ruins, its roads impassable, its growth stunted, and its foreign investments low. The institutions of government still lack the legitimacy and internal control that normally combat corruption and inspire confidence in the Afghan people.
The Taliban are still present and aggressively waging a campaign of terror against the government. The threat of violence by the Taliban (while failing to keep voters away) remains a menacingspectre over this newborn democracy. Attacks – such as the bombing of the Afghan Election Commission and continuous bombings of government offices – demonstrate the Taliban’s resistance to this delicate transition. The continual rejections of peace overtures from the United States shows their determination to be defeated by a western power they still believe to be the “Great Satan.”
The elections present a complex problem for U.S. policymakers in gauging Afghan intentions. While all of the candidates have pledged to sign the new U.S. security agreement, the complexity of Afghan political dynamics continues to keep us guessing on whether or not they will actually honor this commitment. The new government might not be any more receptive than the Karzai administration has been in the last ten years. These new leaders will have to convince hostile Afghan leaders and foreign powers (such as Pakistan) that the new Afghanistan is strong and sovereign; not just a foreign puppet.
Brief History: Blood and Soil
Up until 1975, Afghanistan enjoyed relative peace under a monarchy with a loose tribal confederation, largely dominated by Pashtuns. In that same year, the socialists under Babrak Karmal came to power, and attempted to create a socialist Afghanistan with the support of the Soviet Union. This precipitated intervention by the Soviet security forces, followed by military occupation in order to protect the Karmal Government. War had come to Afghanistan.
From 1979 to 1989, the Soviets fought against the Afghan guerilla armies, the. Together with Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, the United States funneled weapons, supplies and money to leaders such as Gulbadeen Hekmatyar and Ahmed Shah Massoud. The withdrawal of Soviet forces left a devastated country. Guerilla warlords were left to fight among themselves for power. In this vacuum, the Pakistani supported Taliban captured the capital, Kabul and took control of the country. Until 2001, Afghanistan was the haven of drug trading, illegal weapons smuggling, and terrorism.
The U.S. invasion prompted by the 9/11 attacks removed the Taliban from power and destroyed the terrorist infrastructure of Al Qaeda. In the search for Osama Bin Laden – its leader – they assisted the Afghan Northern Alliance, led by Hamid Karzai and Rashid Dostum to set up the new Federal Republic of Afghanistan. U.S. Operation “Anaconda”, and support for the fledgling national army pushed the Taliban into Pakistan, where it now largely operates through suicide bombings, sabotage, and assassinations. Other groups, such as Hekmatyar, still refuse to accept the new government, which they claim is illegitimate, marked with corruption, and not in the best interests of the Afghan people.
The Karzai Government’s insistence on leading Afghanistan independent of any United States foreign policy has led to clashes with U.S.-NATO forces and national Afghan security forces, especially the Afghan army. The inability to create a mutual agreement for Afghan security has also strained relationships between Kabul and Washington. The upcoming pull-out of U.S. forces in late 2014 is set to take place at the same time as the current presidential elections between Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani. Given the situation, the United States may find itself falling into another diplomatic period of “salutary neglect,” just as it did after 1990.
In the following months and years, we should instead consider the following policies regarding Afghanistan, especially as we become more disengaged with internal Afghan politics.
1. Continuous Diplomatic and Military Engagement with the Taliban: Ultimately, the war in Afghanistan will continue until the Taliban, the primary player in this conflict, agrees to disarm. While Al Qaeda is still a threat to the United States, the Taliban could be considered reluctant enemies, and there is a chance they can be convinced to accept peaceful negotiations. Our diplomats should continue pressing all parties (namely the Taliban and the Islamic Republic) to accept a mutual agreement to lay down arms. The Taliban’s influence will decrease as the Afghan economy and society both recover from the war, and refugees return to their homes. Therefore, it is only a matter of time before their power and terror erodes as local support from the Afghan population dwindles.
2. Ensuring Civilian Control of the Army: The greatest threat to Afghan peace and security is the national army. History proves that new democracies, especially those forged out of civil wars and foreign intervention, are vulnerable to military interference with the civilian governance. Such action stems from the latent tendency that leaders have towards autocratic rule, especially in countries with no traditions of democracy or republicanism. Many former Mujahadeen, including Rashid Dostum, have used the army and their former comrades to rebuild their power bases in an attempt to influence Afghan politics. The United States needs to facilitate ways to strengthen civilian control, such as tying foreign aid to continuous democratic development.
3. Deter Pakistan: No solution to the Afghan problem could be complete without considering the threat of Pakistan’s local foreign policy interests. Through their intelligence network, Pakistan has brokered power in the country since the Soviet-Afghan War and the civil war that followed. Their secret support to the Taliban has not just kept moderates and anti-terrorist leaders like Massoud and Karzai from power, but has kept the militia alive long after their expulsion from the country. Administration officials are correct in saying that Afghanistan’s future is tied to a resolution of Pakistan’s conflict with India. There is no better time than now to engage the two nations as part of a broader strategy to insure the national well being and security of the new Afghanistan.
2014 marks a pivotal year in the history of U.S. relationships with Afghanistan. It also marks a transition from the War on Terror to a new phase of American global engagement. It should not be ignored that much has changed in the world in these past few years, with a resurgent Russia and a brewing conflict in the Far East. However, we are reminded by former Congressman Charlie Wilson’s words: “These things happened. They were glorious and they changed the world… and then we fucked up the endgame.” On the fields of success and failure, tomorrow’s challenges are created, and we have to be ready for them. However, in this country, we have an opportunity to define those challenges, both for ourselves, and for the Afghan People.
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