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The Afghanistan quagmire: time for an exit strategy

By Alon Ben-Meir - posted Friday, 5 August 2016


Two weeks ago, President Obama announced that the US will draw down its troops in Afghanistan from 9,800 to 8,400, altering his original plan to reduce the number to 5,500. His decision suggests that conditions on the ground are not as promising as he expected them to be, and maintaining a larger number of troops is important as he believes "it is in our national security interests…that we give our Afghan partners the best opportunities to succeed." The president, however, did not spell out what success actually means. If he meant that Afghanistan will eventually become a stable and functioning democracy, he is fundamentally mistaken.

Indeed, even if the US stations three times as many troops for another 15 years or more, given the multiple conflicts, ruthlessness, and duplicity of the players involved and the country's long history, the US cannot rescue Afghanistan from the quagmire in which it finds itself. The president's concluding remarks strongly suggest that the US' military presence in Afghanistan is essentially open-ended, saying: "...given the enormous challenges they face, the Afghan people will need the partnership of the world, led by the United States, for many years to come." [emphasis added]

The facts on the ground remind us of the Vietnam War-a needlessly prolonged conflict with no prospect of victory-except that the war in Afghanistan is even more complicated and becoming increasingly intractable. To understand what the US strategy should be to end a war that has lasted more than any other in US history, consider the following:

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First, Afghanistan is a landlocked country with a rugged and mountainous terrain replete with thousands of caves, some of which are miles long and familiar only to the indigenous population. Historically, no power has been able to conquer and sustain its conquest of Afghanistan from the time of Alexander the Great, including the Mongols, the British Empire, and Soviet Russia.

Demographically, the country has a population of 32 million, 99 percent of whom are Muslims, composed of tribes and kinship-based groups in a multilingual and multi-ethnic society. As such, the country is politically divided and lacks social and political cohesiveness.

Second, given the history and determination of the Taliban, bringing them to submission was always a non-starter. Even though the US is fully aware that many Taliban militants operate from safe havens inside Pakistan and other hard-to-reach areas, the US is still unwilling to confront Pakistan, giving the Taliban no incentive to negotiate in earnest.

As long as this situation remains unchanged, the touch and go negotiations over the past 14 years will lead to nowhere. Just like the Vietcong, the Taliban strongly feel that they will eventually wear out any government in Kabul, and will keep fighting and make all the sacrifices until they exhaust the US and eventually prevail.

Third, Afghanistan's border with Pakistan-the Durand Line-stretches through the entire southern and eastern boundary between the two countries and is poorly delineated and unprotected. It divides the Pashtun tribes of the region between Afghanistan and Pakistan and has been a source of increasing tension between the two countries, which explains Pakistan's unique concerns and determination to protect its national interests and have a say about Afghanistan's current and future political order.

There is concrete evidence, revealed by the former head of Afghanistan's main intelligence agency, Rahmatullah Nabil, that Pakistan fully supports the Afghani Taliban to achieve a dual purpose: maintain its influence in Afghanistan, and prevent India from establishing a presence in the country, thereby thwarting any effort by New Delhi from encircling it.

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Chris Alexander, Canada's former Citizenship and Immigration Minister and former Ambassador to Afghanistan, flatly stated "Canada and its allies must take a united front against Pakistan because it is a sponsor of terrorism that threatens world security." That said, the Obama administration was and still is unwilling to confront Pakistan because the US views the country as an ally in the war on terror, and the Pakistani military serves to secure the US' strategic interests in south and central Asia.

Fourth, the growing presence of ISIS and the return of strong elements of al-Qaeda, numbering between 1,000 and 3,000 fighters, have become increasingly evident in the mountainous region along the Pakistani border. Their recent attack against the Hazara minority killed 80 people, presumably because members of the community provided some support to the Assad regime in Syria. US military spokesman Brigadier General Charles Cleveland aptly put it: "That's our concern, these high profile attacks, they are effective because they're not that difficult to achieve."

It can be expected that ISIS attacks will become more frequent, especially because of its steady retreat in Iraq and Syria, while further destabilizing Afghanistan and complicating the war efforts regardless of the extent of the US' continuing military backing.

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About the Author

Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.

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