By Javid Ahmad and Ahmad K. Majidyar, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Javid Ahmad is a program coordinator for Asia at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. Ahmad K. Majidyar is a senior research associate at the American Enterprise Institute. The views expressed are their own.
Twenty five years ago this month, the last Soviet soldier marched out of Afghanistan, bringing an end to a nine year occupation that cost the lives of 15,000 Soviet troops and more than a million Afghans. With the close of the Cold War, the West lost interest in the region and Afghanistan became a proxy battlefield for subversive regional power play. Infighting between competing Afghan mujahedeen factions brought anarchy, paving the way for the Taliban and al Qaeda. And now, as the drawdown of international forces approaches, there’s growing fear that history might repeat itself.
It doesn’t have to work out the same way.
For a start, while the political system in Afghanistan is far from perfect, it enjoys far greater support and legitimacy among the Afghan people than the communist regime did in the 1980s. While Afghan presidents back then were effectively appointed by the Kremlin, Afghans today have elected their own leader – and will head to the polls in April to pick a successor to Hamid Karzai. And despite growing pessimism in the West about Afghanistan, Afghans generally remain optimistic about their future: an Asia Foundation survey last year found that a majority of Afghans (57 percent) believed their country was moving in the right direction.
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By Fareed Zakaria
The U.S. has tired of its longest war, debating only the size of the small force it will leave behind, mostly for training purposes. The Taliban continues to have many strongholds in significant parts of the country. And Pakistan continues to support the Taliban from across the border-support that is likely to expand as America withdraws and Islamabad seeks to fill that power vacuum.
So Karzai might be playing an erratic game of brinkmanship in his negotiations with Washington, but he might also be trying to navigate a post-American Afghanistan. While American troops might well remain and some American aid will continue, Afghanistan is going to look very different in 2015 than it does today.
By Fareed Zakaria
Is Hamid Karzai crazy? on the face of it, the Afghan President has said lots of odd, inflammatory and contradictory things. Over the past year, he has criticized the U.S., wondered whether its presence in Afghanistan has done any good at all, refused to sign an Afghanistan-U.S. security pact and called members of the Taliban his brothers. This week the New York Times revealed that he has been conducting secret negotiations with the Taliban. What can he be thinking?
Maybe Karzai is looking at what happened to one of his predecessors. In 1989 the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan. The President it had backed, Mohammad Najibullah, stayed in power, but within months a civil war broke out, forcing him to seek refuge in a U.N. compound. In 1996 the Taliban rode into Kabul, captured Najibullah, denounced him as a foreign puppet, castrated him, dragged his body through the streets and then hung him from a traffic barricade. For good measure, they did the same to his brother.
That year was a gruesome replay of an earlier piece of Afghan history that Karzai also knows well.
By Frederic Grare, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Frederic Grare is senior associate and director of the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The views expressed are his own. This is the latest in the '14 in 2014' series, looking at what the year ahead holds for key countries.
As the U.S. exit from Afghanistan nears, we can expect to hear steadily more about the lessons we should have learned since international intervention in the country back in 2001. But one dimension of the Afghan effort that might get overlooked next year is this: how has the Afghan conflict impacted transatlantic solidarity?
The short answer is that transatlantic relations may well be another long-term victim of the war in Afghanistan.
The Afghan operation started as a spectacular demonstration of the solidity of the transatlantic alliance in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, when NATO activated Article V of its collective defense clause for the first time in its history. But the limits of cooperation were quickly demonstrated, eroding the foundations of transatlantic solidarity. Whether they can be fully restored remains to be seen.
Afghanistan has been a story of frustration on both sides of the Atlantic. One of the early disagreements was over the relative importance of military operations versus a broader political approach – while the United States tended to focus on the former, European states emphasized the latter. The resources that each side was capable and willing to engage in Afghanistan played a role in this initial difference, but this doesn’t explain everything. Europeans had a genuine problem with the U.S. approach, which, over the years, kept focusing on security at the expense of politics and a sustained effort at national cohesion. As a result, all Afghan political institutions were created in a way that reflected Washington’s desire for expediency rather than a need to ensure the political system’s sustainability.
Torn between their willingness to demonstrate solidarity with Washington after 9/11 and their perception that the goals of the mission, as defined by Washington, were unachievable, many European countries limited their investment to the minimum and sought instead to bring their troops home. Others, in particular the closest American allies, decided to stick to U.S. strategy even when they knew it was bound to fail. These allies paid a heavy human, financial and political price, but seemed to take some absurd comfort in the fact that the failure would be a collective responsibility.
In parallel, the temptation in Washington to blame the Europeans for the coalition failures in Afghanistan grew as it became increasingly clear that, despite the official rhetoric, the United States had achieved none of its objectives. If al Qaeda has been weakened, none of its local affiliates has been eradicated and its reemergence remains a possibility in 2014 and beyond – the reality is that the Afghan state that is emerging from the reconstruction effort is in no position to prevent this happening on its own once U.S. forces have withdrawn next year.
Ironically the impending exit from Afghanistan has only exacerbated ill feelings on both sides of the Atlantic. In spite of the principle “in together, out together,” Washington decided unilaterally to withdraw, but felt let down when some of its partners decided to anticipate its own departure.
The consequences of this mutual frustration are unlikely to be spectacular. European states are too dependent on the United States for their own security to snub Washington. Nor is Afghanistan the sole reason for Washington’s diminishing commitment to European security. With the existential threat of the Soviet Union long gone and given European governments’ dwindling capacity to contribute to collective security, the continent no longer constitutes a strategic concern for Washington. At the same time, the war-weary and fiscally-stressed United States is increasingly reluctant to commit to foreign military adventures. These two phenomena, neither of which is directly or exclusively related to Afghanistan, are pulling the two sides of the Atlantic apart.
Future conflicts may not exactly look like Afghanistan, but there is a good chance they will share some of its characteristics, in particular the primacy of politics and the relatively secondary character of military force. In Afghanistan, most U.S. allies concurred with the perception that the conflict could not be solved kinetically. However, for a variety of reasons, they never really stood against that dominant U.S. paradigm. Instead, they let themselves become part of a succession of U.S. military strategies that all proved short lived.
The result of all this is a collective failure that from next year will very likely translate into a loss of credibility not just for the U.S., but for the entire Western alliance.
By Michael Kugelman, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Michael Kugelman is the senior program associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The views expressed are his own.
On August 5, 2009, a U.S. drone strike killed Pakistani Taliban (TTP) leader Baitullah Mehsud. In the days that followed, his death was confirmed by the TTP, which immediately made plans to select his successor. One person, however, had a different view on what happened – an energetic young TTP commander named Hakimullah Mehsud. He’s just “a bit sick,” he told a reporter.
What a strange remark. And yet four years later, the unhappy response in Pakistan to the death-by-drone of Hakimullah, Baitullah’s successor, is similarly perplexing.
Hakimullah Mehsud enjoyed, even by the TTP’s savage standards, an outsize reputation for cruelty. He contrasted sharply with Baitullah Mehsud, to whom he served as a close aide. Baitullah was portly and afflicted by diabetes – a condition that caused him chronic leg pain. He was killed while reportedly reclining on the roof of his father-in-law’s home, receiving a leg massage from a female companion. Hakimullah, by contrast, was big and athletic – and is believed to have survived several prior strikes.
By Ellen Laipson, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Ellen Laipson is president and CEO of the Stimson Center, a nonprofit and nonpartisan international security think tank. The views expressed are the writer’s own.
In the beautifully restored third century B.C. citadel of the ancient western Afghan city of Herat, scholars and diplomats from Afghanistan's neighbors and international partners spent the first weekend in October at a security conference exploring prospects for the country to emerge as a stable and independent state after NATO military forces leave in 2014.
The conference, which I attended along with more than 130 other participants representing 30 countries and organizations, was filled with more questions than answers about what awaits Afghanistan.
Who will be chosen to be the nation’s new leader in the April 5 election to replace President Hamid Karzai? Will the elections meet international standards? Will the Taliban be integrated as a legitimate political force or remain spoilers or worse in Afghanistan’s political future? Will Afghanistan maintain the new freedoms for the media and in the status of women or slip backward once international attention is reduced?
By Howard Cohen
Editor’s note: Howard Cohen is a Global Public Square intern. The views expressed are his own.
No one relishes the idea of sitting down with the enemy, looking them in the eye and talking – especially when you have spent some $650 billion fighting that war, losing more than 2,000 servicemen in the process. Yet in June, that was exactly what the United States was preparing to do – negotiate with the Taliban. Talks were derailed when the Taliban decided to hang a white flag from their office in Qatar, the same flag used during the group’s rule in Afghanistan. Afghan President Hamid Karzai was furious, and halted talks.
But despite a senior Afghan negotiator last week suggesting that talks were unlikely to resume in Qatar, the fact remains that as U.S. forces withdraw from the country, some sort of negotiations seem inevitable. And that raises a troubling question: After a dozen years of fighting, is the U.S. actually negotiating from a position of weakness? And if so, can it hope to extract any meaningful gains?
“You can’t win at the negotiating table what you can’t defend on the battlefield,” says Mitchell B. Reiss, president of Washington College and former director of Policy Planning at the U.S. State Department, who argues that the United States has little leverage because everyone knows that their troops are withdrawing.
“Never [have I] come across a single instance where a government was able to expedite the negotiations to suit its political calendar rather than that of the insurgent or terrorist group,” he says, adding that the Obama administration is trying to rush to the negotiation table without having laid the proper groundwork.
By Michael Kugelman, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Michael Kugelman is the senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. You can follow him @michaelkugelman. The views expressed are his own.
U.S. President Barack Obama is seriously considering the possibility of removing every U.S. soldier from Afghanistan by the end of 2014. This news is significant, but hardly surprising.
After all, ever since he took office, Obama has appeared uncomfortable about long-term troop commitments. He has frequently sparred with military commanders who want more troops and time than he’s willing to provide. Obama’s reluctance was crystallized by, ironically, the troop surge of 2009. Even as he authorized the dispatch of 30,000 more troops, he ordered that they begin to withdraw just 18 months later.
Given this unease, Obama will need strong assurances that leaving a residual force in Afghanistan after 2014 would serve a necessary purpose. Increasingly, it appears this wouldn’t be the case. This suggests Obama could well choose the zero troop option. It would be the right decision.
By Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is a fellow and deputy director of the Women and Foreign Policy Program with the Council on Foreign Relations. The views expressed are her own.
Then presidential candidate Barack Obama once called Afghanistan the war “we have to win.” Now it is the fight America wants only to end.
And as Afghans take the security helm in their country and international forces move to a supporting role, one of the central unanswered questions remains: just how many Americans will stay come 2014 and the long-announced end to the war? The answer to that question says much about the state of U.S.-Afghan relations, the durability of whatever Bilateral Security Agreement the United States and Afghan officials can forge, and America’s sense of its own strategic interests in the region, which have become inextricably interwoven with the fate of President Hamid Karzai (though the two are not the same).
Right now, though, the question is one of simple numbers.
Recent reports revived the idea of the “zero option,” a scenario in which all American troops will leave Afghanistan come next year’s end. That idea, raised in a White House conference call early this year, emerged once more Tuesday amid a sustained outbreak of political irritation from the Obama administration with their Kabul counterpart. Noted the New York Times: “the idea of a complete military exit similar to the American military pullout from Iraq has gone from being considered the worst-case scenario — and a useful negotiating tool with Mr. Karzai — to an alternative under serious consideration in Washington and Kabul.”
By Ahmad Majidyar, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Ahmad Majidyar is a senior research associate at the American Enterprise Institute, focusing on South Asia and the Middle East. The views expressed are the writer’s own.
The opening of a Taliban office in Qatar prompted fresh optimism over the prospect of a political settlement being reached that could end the 12-year conflict in Afghanistan. The U.S. and Afghan governments hoped that the insurgent group would agree to renounce violence, cut ties with al Qaeda and accept the Afghan constitution. The Taliban, however, clearly had a different agenda, using the occasion as a publicity stunt to present itself as an alternative government and gain international credibility. And its approach sent shockwaves across Afghanistan.
At the inauguration ceremony in Doha, Taliban representatives reportedly played their official anthem, hoisted their white flag and placed an “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” nameplate outside their embassy-like building. Feeling betrayed by the U.S. and Qatari governments, Afghan President Hamid Karzai almost immediately announced he was boycotting the talks and suspended planned negotiations with Washington over a bilateral security agreement that lays out the legal framework for post-2014 American military presence in Afghanistan. Since then, the peace talks have been placed on hold.
As a result, despite Secretary of State John Kerry’s conciliatory phone conversations with President Karzai, and Presidents Obama and Karzai on Tuesday “reaffirming” their support for talks with the Taliban, any negotiations are unlikely to produce something tangible.
By Javid Ahmad, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Javid Ahmad is a Program Coordinator for Asia at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. Follow him on Twitter @ahmadjavid. The views expressed are the author’s own.
On Tuesday, the U.S.-led coalition completed a five-stage security transition process in Afghanistan that began two years ago at the NATO summit in Lisbon, allowing the Afghan forces to take the security lead across the country for the first time in more than a decade. Yet despite NATO’s insistence that it will not abandon Afghanistan, the allies are seemingly struggling to agree on just what that engagement might look like.
At the recent NATO defense ministerial meeting, the allies endorsed a new Afghan National Security Forces training mission called “Resolute Support” that will involve a multi-national international force after 2014. While Washington wants the allies involved in the new training mission to supply a smaller force to sustain the ANSF, none want to see that engagement turn into a reduced version of the currently huge Afghan campaign.
But although the alliance’s timely agreement on these issues is critical, there are at least three other important challenges – and lingering doubts – that could disrupt the security transition and undermine Afghanistan’s broader democratic transition in 2014.
By Michael O’Hanlon, Special to CNN
Michael O’Hanlon is senior fellow at Brookings and author of The Wounded Giant: America’s Armed Forces in an Age of Austerity. The views expressed are his own.
President Barack Obama’s counterterrorism speech Thursday did not deliver any radical policy changes or huge revelations, but it was well done nonetheless. It explained his reasoning behind the use of certain techniques of warfare including drone strikes and Guantanamo detentions, even as he also promised to minimize the use of these methods in the future and try to move towards a world in which the 2001 authorization for war against al Qaeda and affiliates would no longer be needed. It was an intelligent blend of the tone of his more idealistic speeches, such as the Cairo address of June 2009, with his more muscular messages like the December 2009 Nobel Prize acceptance speech.
But one section of his speech is worth particular focus – the use of armed unmanned combat vehicles or drones. Even though President Obama did not specify exactly how drone strikes would change in the future, and did not provide a great deal of new information about them, the modest amount of detail he did provide was welcome. That is because U.S. drone strikes are badly misunderstood around the world, a point underscored by a New York Times op-ed today contained the following statements:
“...the C.I.A. has no idea who is actually being killed in most of the strikes. Despite this acknowledgment, the drone program in Pakistan still continues without any Congressional oversight or accountability.”