The attempt at talks between the United States and the Afghan Taliban appears to have broken down for the moment. This is not unexpected, and is not in itself cause for despair. Almost every negotiating process in history aimed at ending insurgencies and civil wars has taken a very long time, and encountered numerous reverses along the way. Things are especially difficult because the conflict is not simply an insurgency against an “occupier,” but also a civil war between local groups, with one of them supported from outside. This means that negotiations have to be between three or more parties—the US, the Taliban, the Karzai government, and other anti-Taliban forces.
This kind of negotiating situation is not new: it was true in Northern Ireland, which involved the British, the IRA, and the Ulster protestant parties; in Algeria with the French government, the FLN and the French settlers in Algeria; and in Vietnam with the US, North Vietnam, and South Vietnam. Of course, one solution is for the outside power simply to abandon its local allies and reach a settlement with the enemy without them (of course, with face-saving provisions, but with the implicit understanding that these allies are being thrown to the dogs). This is what the insurgents always aim at—and what in Algeria and Vietnam they eventually achieved, after immense bloodshed: splitting the foreign power from its local allies or proxies. And this is precisely what Karzai and his supporters fear most, accounting for the sometimes hysterical nature of their protests against negotiations with the Taliban.
Seen from Kabul, there are good reasons to fear that the US will negotiate some sort of deal with the Taliban and quit Afghanistan entirely. According to unofficial statements from the White House reported in The New York Times, the option of complete withdrawal is one that President Obama is now actively considering. This would be in stark contrast to what had been hitherto planned—keeping bases, aircraft, drones, special forces, and advisers in place until at least 2024 to support the Afghan National Army and continue strikes against Al Qaeda targets in the tribal areas of Pakistan.
Until now, the total withdrawal option has been ruled out largely out of the fear that it would repeat the experience of South Vietnam following the complete US pull out in 1973—where the local state left behind lasted barely two years before North Vietnamese victory. And of course, the latest suggestions from the White House are by no means an indication that the existing strategy will definitely be changed. Indeed, US officials have made it clear that floating the idea of total withdrawal is in significant part an attempt to put pressure on the Karzai administration to engage in the American-led peace effort. It also appears to be a strong warning to Karzai not to attempt to rewrite the Afghan constitution and somehow stay in power after his second term expires.
The fact that this “zero option” is now being mentioned at all however also reflects the Obama Administration’s growing concerns about the situation in Afghanistan after next year, and about the fate of the thousands of US military personnel who—according to existing plans—would be left in Afghanistan after most US forces withdraw. In particular, Washington fears that if the Afghan presidential elections that are supposed to take place next year fail to produce a legitimate and credible victor—or if Karzai decides to try to cling to power, a move that would also be regarded by most Afghans as wholly illegitimate—the result could be the implosion of the (in any case very weak) US-backed Afghan state, and either a military takeover, the disintegration of the Afghan military, or both.
There is however one big difference between the Afghan state and army today and some of the historical cases I’ve referred to. The French settlers in Algeria (the so-called pieds noirs) and the government of South Vietnam had nowhere else to go for help than France in the one case and the United States in the other. The present Afghan regime and its supporters can look to potential helpers that existed and were engaged in Afghanistan long before the US arrived on the scene—in the case of India and Iran, engagement in the area of what is now Afghanistan goes back more than 2,000 years. Russia and Iran supported the anti-Taliban forces in the 1990s; and large parts of the Indian establishment are now prepared to follow their example if the US pulls out, both to prevent Afghanistan becoming a Pakistani client state and base for anti-Indian terrorism, and to strengthen India’s economic position in Afghanistan, Central Asia, and Iran.
But the prospect of Afghanistan becoming an Indian client state is also the greatest nightmare for Pakistan, the other regional power whose strategies and interests are critical to any Afghan peace process. If the US pulls out completely and India pours in arms, money, and advisers to prop up the Afghan National Army (ANA), then it seems certain that Pakistan would ramp up its support for the Taliban accordingly.
In my view, none of this outside aid would change the basic contours of the struggle in the long term. India cannot guarantee a legitimate and credible elected successor to President Karzai next year any more than America can. No amount of Indian or Russian aid would enable the ANA to reconquer the Pashtun countryside of southern and eastern Afghanistan; nor would any amount of Pakistani aid enable the Taliban to conquer the non-Pashtun nationalities of central and northern Afghanistan. What all this outside “aid” would do—as it has so often in Afghanistan’s tragic past—is ensure that Afghanistan’s civil war continues, perhaps indefinitely.
The desire in parts of the Indian security establishment to play a much bigger part in Afghanistan is owed in part to a belief that Pakistan’s Afghan strategy remains that of the 1990s: to back the Afghan Taliban to complete victory, in order to create a Pakistani client state. The real picture however has become much more complicated, precisely as a result of the catastrophic failure of Pakistan’s earlier strategy, and the Islamist revolt now unfolding within Pakistan itself.
This is the first in a two-part series about the search for Afghan peace. Part two examines Pakistan’s contradictory interests in Afghanistan’s future.