President Obama is losing sight of our interests in Afghanistan. Again.
Despite clearly laying out U.S. interests in Afghanistan at West Point in 2009—disrupting, dismantling, and defeating Al Qaeda—the president faltered when he authorized a nation-building-cum-counterinsurgency strategy that far outstripped that goal. Mission leap, not mission creep. Now the White House is allowing its efforts to get the Taliban to the negotiating table to obstruct more important aims.
The path to negotiations in Afghanistan has been a troubled one. Thus, a White House desperate for good news was quick to trumpet the long-awaited, painfully brokered grand opening of a Taliban office in the Gulf state of Qatar. But hope erupted into disappointment, as it so often has since President Obama took the reins of foreign policy in 2009. President Hamid Karzai condemned the office and abruptly cancelled a more crucial negotiations process—that over the status of U.S. forces in Afghanistan post-2014.
Why did our President Karzai respond to an opening towards peace in this way? A sign. The Taliban representatives in Qatar had posted a sign in front of their office that read, “The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.” Karzai was widely ridiculed for his hostile reaction over such a “cosmetic” issue and the White House, in frustration, let loose a leak that the “zero option,” that would see all U.S. troops depart by the end of 2014, had been mooted within the confines of the National Security Council. The message from Washington was clear: You need us more than we need you. Play ball on talks, or else.
The trouble is, this was not really about a sign, but rather was a consequence of larger problems in the U.S.-Afghan relationship and, in particular, Washington’s imperious approach to the issue of talks with the Taliban. This stems from President Obama’s misprioritization of U.S. aims in Afghanistan.
Our core interests vis-à-vis Afghanistan are the pursuit and containment of terrorists with transnational ambitions and the maintenance of sufficient regional stability. The latter concerns Pakistan—an unstable, paranoid nuclear power with a penchant for sponsoring militants—far more than Afghanistan (U.S. policymakers often fail to appreciate the extent to which the U.S.-led campaign in Afghanistan has destabilized Pakistan). A negotiated settlement between the Kabul government and the Taliban movement is a useful but not essential for either of these interests. This is not to say that a negotiated settlement with the Taliban is not a desirable outcome—first and foremost for Afghans—and that America does not have a role to play on this issue. But, the pursuit of talks must not be allowed to obfuscate America’s ability to keep a residual force of special operators, trainers and air support in Afghanistan beyond 2014.
How can Washington get back on track to play a positive role in Afghanistan’s political future?
Step back. “Afghan-led” is a term that has been bandied about liberally in Washington, London, and the headquarters of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). However, the Afghan National Security Forces have only recently taken the lead on security operations across the country. The same must now occur for talks. Thus far, the U.S. has sought to coerce and prod Kabul to the table, often in ways that are callous to Afghan interests and oddly disconnected from our own. Talks must be pursued at Kabul’s pace and in line with Kabul’s interests. Last year, the Afghan High Peace Council assumed a more robust approach when it visited Islamabad and announced a five-step “road map” toward a negotiated settlement. This is encouraging, not only because Afghans are taking the lead, but that the center of gravity for talks need not be the Presidential Palace. Indeed, if President Karzai leaves office as he should next year, the Afghan government will be in a stronger position for talks having taken control over most insurgent prisoners and assumed authority over the “night raids” so feared by the Taliban. These are two important “sticks” now held by Afghan government.
Facilitate Karzai’s constitutionally mandated departure from office next year. This is the most important piece of the puzzle. President Karzai has become the most significant obstacle toward a stable Afghanistan, standing as he does over an extraordinarily corrupt government that has failed to be effective at anything besides siphoning money from the U.S. Treasury into bank accounts in Dubai. He is also one of the greatest obstacles to a healthy political future for Afghanistan. President Karzai is so despised within the Taliban movement that its leaders will never seriously negotiate with him, just as the mujahideen refused to negotiate with President Mohammad Najibullah in the late 1980s and early 1990s. This is not to say that Karzai will cease to play a political role in Afghanistan once he leaves office. He will still retain considerable informal power—the sort of power that really matters in a patronage-based society. But Afghanistan must be formally led by someone with credibility and legitimacy—two assets that Karzai spent long ago. The United States should focus its remaining political capital in Afghanistan on ensuring a smooth and nonviolent transition of power to a new head-of-state via elections that, if not free and fair, are freer and fairer than the fraudulent 2009 elections.
Clear the chefs out of the kitchen. There are too many trying to play a significant role in the negotiations process: the U.K., Japan, Germany, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, and—of course—Afghanistan, Pakistan and the United States. Too many chefs are in the kitchen, and they are all working off different recipes. Washington must focus its efforts not on opening a Taliban office in Qatar, but on coordinating the role of the international community, with the obvious exception of Pakistan, which will continue to march to the beat of its own drum no matter what the United States does or does not do. Unfortunately, even the U.S. government itself has been a house divided on the issue of talks. The President must enfranchise a single well-resourced official with the necessary authority to lead, not just on talks, but also on Afghanistan’s political future. The Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan is the natural choice, but the short history of this position has been plagued by personality conflicts, mismanagement, and debilitating turf wars.
Know your sticks and carrots. Our biggest “stick” is our troop presence, which has been steadily drawing down from a peak of over one hundred thousand since the “surge” ended in late 2011. It is not ideal to launch a negotiations process during a military withdrawal, but that is where we are and where we have been since President Obama decided to broadcast the expiration date of the “surge” not long after its inception. The U.S. will hopefully retain a stick in a residual troop presence, but now even this is in doubt. As for “carrots,” the U.S. still has a bagful as it considers to what degree it will support and equip the Afghan National Security Forces post-2014. But a carrot for Kabul is a stick for the Taliban. Future U.S. success in Afghanistan will depend not only on deploying these sticks and carrots creatively and dynamically, but generating incentives for the Taliban to lay down their arms over time.
Keep your eyes on the prize. Our interests, as explained above, are narrow in Afghanistan. In order to continue an effective intelligence and special-operations campaign against Al Qaeda in the “AfPak” region, the U.S. must retain Kandahar and Bagram Airfields, at least, and man them with special operators, fixed and rotary air wings, and some training components for the Afghan National Security Forces. This is not possible unless the U.S. brokers a status-of-forces agreement with Kabul that gives its troops the authority to operate. Any effort that threatens this aim—to include negotiations with the Taliban—must be relegated to a lower level of priority or abandoned as a resourced U.S. policy aim.
Ryan Evans is Assistant Director of the Center for the National Interest. He is the author—with John Bew, Martyn Frampton, Marisa Porges and Peter Neumann—of the recently published report, Talking to the Taliban: Hope Over History. His opinions are his own and not necessarily shared by his co-authors.