Nearly six months into the United States surge in Afghanistan and six months prior to the White House’s review of the Afghan war strategy, it’s clear our mission in Afghanistan is not only failing, but beyond repair.
Only a political solution can bring lasting peace to Afghanistan and extract the US from this messy conflict. And given Washington’s bleak military predicament, it must begin to give precedence to a political reconciliation process with the senior Taliban leadership now, rather than next year.
The surge’s goal is to blunt the Taliban’s advance within a year’s time and force it to negotiate from a position of weakness. But the Taliban, rather than weakened, is ascendant and will probably remain so.
A recent US Defense Department assessment indicates that most of Afghanistan’s key 121 districts are neutral or sympathetic toward the Taliban, or even staunchly support it. Meanwhile, the Taliban has stymied efforts to establish the Afghan government’s writ in the restive south – the Taliban heartland and the war’s center of gravity.
The so called government in a box, or quickly-installable local government, has come to the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar – but that box is a coffin. The Taliban has assassinated local government officials essential to efforts to win over the locals by improving their quality of life. Insurgents have returned to the town of Marja after the offensive there this spring. And operations in the neighboring Kandahar Province, originally scheduled for this month, have been delayed at least until early autumn, due to the Marja operation’s failure.
The status quo – a violent, fractured Afghanistan that is occupied by foreign troops and led by a corrupt, incompetent, and legitimacy-lacking government – benefits the Taliban, who as sons of the soil, can remain in a state of war perhaps indefinitely.
But the United States cannot afford to sink deeper into the Afghan quicksand.
The war in Afghanistan currently costs American taxpayers between $100 million and $200 million annually. A prolonged, ambitious engagement of up to 10 more years – advocated by some conservatives – could cost the US over a trillion dollars.
Fortunately, there is a nascent peace process led by the Afghan and Pakistani governments that Washington can capitalize on. Both Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the Pakistani Army are engaged in outreach to the three major Afghan insurgent parties: the Mullah Omar-led Taliban, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-i Islami, and the network of Jalaluddin and Sirajuddin Haqqani. This initiative is Washington’s ticket for a safe and honorable exit from Afghanistan.
Washington should let Mr. Karzai and the Pakistan Army take the lead in forging a lasting Afghan peace. Indeed, the military-intelligence establishment of Pakistan is the only entity that has the leverage to bring the Taliban to the table. While the extent of the Pakistani military’s support for the Taliban is unclear, it has senior Taliban figures in its custody and the Taliban is dependent on Pakistani havens to wage its fight in Afghanistan. As a result, the Pakistani military is equipped with powerful levers to push the Taliban toward talks.
Washington can do its part by coaxing non-Pashtuns, who are reluctant to make peace with the Taliban, into the peace process, and ensure that a political settlement to the Afghan war includes all its major power factions.
President Obama announced the start date for a US withdrawal, but it was very vague. There is no complete schedule. Peace with the Taliban would probably require a phased departure of Western troops on a fixed timetable that explicitly states the date for a final withdrawal of coalition forces. The vacuum left by departing Western troops could be filled by peacekeepers from nonneighboring Muslim states, such as Jordan and Turkey. In exchange, the Taliban should pledge to abide by an Afghanistan constitution and end all cooperation with Al Qaeda, which is on its last throes in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. The terms of a peace deal can be finalized in a loya jirga, or grand council, consisting of all Afghan ethnic and religious factions.
Though a political settlement with the Taliban will undoubtedly require compromise on legal and social matters, these concessions need not set back Afghan women in the long term. While the Taliban might push for an end to coeducation in Afghanistan’s south, there is no Islamic basis for them to oppose girls-only schools. Gulf Arab states that have done their fair share to promote radicalism in Afghanistan should recompense by funding primary and secondary girls schools, putting Afghanistan on a path toward universal education.
Within a generation’s time, the world can witness an Afghanistan fully healed from the 30 years of strife. But healing Afghanistan requires a political, not a military, solution. And Washington’s consent to bring about that solution must come now, before it sinks deeper into an unwinnable war.
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