US president Barack Obama earlier today announced that while most of the US military forces in Afghanistan, which currently number around 35,000, will leave the country later this year, a force of 9,800 will remain — and could remain through 2016.
It’s still possible that under a new bilateral security agreement, which US officials hope to conclude later this year with the administration of Afghanistan’s next president, small numbers of US forces will remain even longer. But Obama’s remarks make it clear that US hostilities, by and large, will be over by the time his successor is elected in November 2016:
“Americans have learned that it’s harder to end wars than it is to begin them,” he said. “Yet this is how wars end in the 21st century.”
Despite Mr. Obama’s attempt to draw to a close more than a decade of American military engagement in Afghanistan, the United States will continue to have thousands of troops engaged in lethal counterterrorism operations for at least two more years. He also acknowledged that the United States will leave behind a mixed legacy. “We have to recognize Afghanistan will not be a perfect place, and it is not America’s responsibility to make it one,” he said. “The future of Afghanistan must be decided by Afghans.”
In a June 14 runoff, Abdullah Abdullah, a former foreign minister, who is half Pashtun and half Tajik, will face Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, a former finance minister and World Bank official, who is Pashtun. After the first round of the election, Abdullah led with 44.94% to just 31.47% for Ghani. The outgoing president, Hamid Karzai, who has held the office since late 2001, has had increasingly difficult relations with the Obama administration, and he has refused to sign a status-of-forces agreement regarding future US security arrangements. Both Abdullah and Ghani, however, have rushed to assure Afghans that they will prioritize a US-Afghan security agreement.
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Abdullah, who recently won the support of the third-place candidate, Zalmai Rassoul, until recently Karzai’s foreign minister. Rassoul was widely seen as Karzai’s unofficial candidate, due to his recent role in the Karzai administration and the endorsement he won from Karzai’s brother. Rassoul won strong heavy in Kandahar province, Karzai’s home power base.
That makes that Abdullah has the ethnic and tribal arithmetic on his side, making his the strong favorite to win the June 14 runoff. Pashtuns, which comprise around 42% of Afghanistan’s population, have traditionally held political power in Afghanistan, including Karzai, within the Taliban and the Afghan monarchy that ruled the country for nearly three centuries until its overthrow in 1973.
Tajiks, which comprise around 27% of the population, are predominant throughout northeastern Afghanistan, and are the largest ethnic group in Kabul. They played a predominant role in the Northern Alliance that assisted US forces topple the Taliban government in 2001.
Not everyone, however, is sanguine about Afghanistan’s post-US future. Max Fisher, writing at Vox, takes a pessimistic line over the eventual drawdown:
The bad news is that the administration is tacitly confirming what everybody already knew: the war against the Taliban is not one that the US believes it can win, so we’re going to stop trying. That war, Afghanistan’s war, is going to continue….
The Afghan military has been problematic from the beginning: it runs on US funding and is plagued with desertions. Another year of US help is not likely to turn them into a victory force. President Obama’s declaration that this will help the Afghan military “stand on its own” is just not very likely.
But the Taliban was never likely to strike a peace deal with the United States, and despite attempts at peace talks, it’s hard to imagine that there’s any cultural or political space for the Taliban and its insurgent allies to engage in seriously negotiations with the United States.
That’s not the same, however, as an Abdullah administration or a Ghani administration striking a deal with the Taliban.
Ending Afghanistan’s insurgency, like most insurgencies from Colombia to Northern Ireland, will almost certainly require a political solution. It would be great if the Afghan military could ‘stand on its own,’ but there’s not a lot of reason to believe that even a robust force would destroy the insurgency.
What’s more, the US occupation has made it impossible to know whether Afghans can work with Afghans (and specifically, whether Pashtuns can work with Pashtuns) to bring peace to the country. Compromise with an Afghan government goes down a lot more easily than compromise with Western countries. So much of the insurgency is directed at the US military presence in Afghanistan, it’s not surprising that the view might be different when US troops are gone.
Think of the US military as a gaping negative barrier to entry in the political marketplace where a negotiated solution to the insurgency might otherwise emerge.
That means that the next Afghan president will have to find a way to accommodate Taliban leaders, and there’s every sign that both Abdullah and Ghani will pursue those efforts. Given the relatively weak ‘spring offensive’ that the Taliban has launched so far this month, and given that the first round of the presidential election proceeded in relatively calm conditions, some experts are speculating that Abdullah and Ghani are already negotiating with the Taliban. (Let’s wait and see, though, how the next 17 days go until the next election day).
It’s true that the Taliban hasn’t always been an honest broker in negotiations. But it’s also worth noting that Abdullah has chosen as his running mate Mohammad Khan, a former deputy leader of the political arm of Hezb-i-Islami. The more violent arm of Hezb-i-Islami formed in the early 1970s and it’s led by the fearsome mujahideen leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Though Hezb-i-Islami originally opposed the Taliban in the early 1990s and after the Taliban took power in 1996, it’s increasingly found common cause with the Taliban, joining the anti-US, anti-Karzai insurgency.
Khan, like many Hezb-i-Islami leaders, has been accused of playing both sides of Afghan politics — the ‘legitimate’ side that involves elections and governance and the ‘illegitimate’ side of insurgency and jihad. But that’s why his presence in an Abdullah administration would be so promising for any eventual negotiations with the Taliban. Many of Khan’s colleagues in Hezb-i-Islami have been standing alongside the Taliban for the past decade fighting US and other Western forces, which makes Khan a major conduit between Abdullah and insurgency leaders.
But it’s easy to see why that stage of Taliban-government negotiations can’t take place until the US military presence in Afghanistan is gone — or at least significantly reduced.
As late as the 1960s and the 1970s, Afghanistan was a stable, modernizing, and even fairly united country. Things didn’t really go awry for Afghanistan until the Soviet occupation of the 1980s, the civil war and Taliban-era terror that filled the power vacuum of the 1990s and the US military intervention in the 2000s.
Given that it is Western intervention that has so destabilized Afghanistan in the past, it’s worth hoping there’s a chance that Afghans themselves know better how to heal their country more than three decades worth of Soviet and American military advisers.