No Exit from Afghanistan

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New Delhi – Despite frequent turmoil and repeated invasions, Afghanistan has remained virtually unchanged for centuries. Nearly 120 years ago, Winston Churchill described the futility of warfare in the region: “Financially it is ruinous. Morally it is wicked. Militarily it is an open question, and politically it is a blunder.” Churchill’s assessment undoubtedly rings true for many United States and NATO officials today, as they attempt to coordinate an exit from America’s longest overseas combat commitment in history.

While the war in Afghanistan may have resulted in fewer American deaths and injuries than previous US wars, the human cost remains substantial – especially after factoring in Afghan deaths and injuries. Moreover, trillions of dollars have been wasted, with the few positive effects of the US-led military intervention already beginning to fade, and its many adverse consequences continuing to destabilize the region.

US President Barack Obama is now trying to negotiate a new “status of forces” agreement with the Afghan government in order to establish how many US troops will remain in Afghanistan and the terms of their deployment. But the reality is that the US is scuttling from a conflict that it has lost, just as it did in Vietnam almost 40 years ago, leaving the beleaguered population to its own devices.

Rather than admit defeat, US officials are resorting to diversionary rhetoric. For example, speaking recently in New Delhi, Secretary of State John Kerry said that the key to stabilizing Afghanistan is to build a “new silk road” connecting it with central Asia – a cynical contrivance apparently aimed at cloaking America’s failure in illusions of future commerce. Kerry’s insistence that the US is not withdrawing, but “drawing down,” is a similarly transparent attempt at manipulation.

To be sure, America’s presence in Afghanistan has spawned important regional linkages; unfortunately, they are not the kind that support economic renewal. The last decade of war and lawlessness has facilitated the Taliban’s proliferation across Pakistan and Afghanistan, leading the Taliban to consider itself an indefatigable force – a belief that could lead its leaders to undercut any progress toward stability.

In fact, the Taliban’s confidence already drove them to disrupt plans for peace talks with the Afghan government. After agreeing to establish an office in Qatar exclusively to host the talks, in June the Taliban opened a quasi-embassy of the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.” The Afghan government responded by suspending talks with the Taliban, as well as the status-of-forces negotiations with the US.

Pakistan recommends seeking an alternate venue for the negotiations with the Taliban, rather than abandoning reconciliation efforts altogether. This bodes well for the resumption of talks, given that Pakistan played a leading role in facilitating the Taliban’s emergence and is now home to the Afghan Taliban’s ruling council, including its leader, Mullah Omar, along with the Pakistani Taliban.

India’s former ambassador to Afghanistan, Vivek Katju, is confident that Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s anger at the Taliban’s gambit in Qatar will not delay negotiations for long. (Indeed, Karzai has reportedly already met with Taliban representatives for secret talks aimed at restarting the stalled peace initiative.)

Katju attributes the talks’ inevitable resumption to America’s “strategic desperation,” which is so acute that the US would be unlikely even to follow through on Kerry’s pledge to call off the talks if any link to Al Qaeda were found. After all, the US has already accepted the Taliban’s unrealistic assurances that it will not use Afghanistan as a base from which to “foment trouble” – that is, execute terrorist attacks – elsewhere.

Fortunately for the US, the Taliban is no longer a homogeneous group. A decade of running and hiding from unrelenting surveillance and targeted drone attacks has caused the movement to splinter. Yet, as the security expert Sajjan M. Gohel has observed, “the displaced and disillusioned Taliban youth of today” have “found solace and purpose in an extremely radical interpretation of Islam.” The Taliban may no longer be a unified force, but they clearly remain a dangerous one.

All of these developments have put India in a difficult position. In Afghanistan, America’s military was so tactically dependent on Pakistan that, on several occasions, the US encouraged India to curtail development projects, such as rebuilding Afghanistan’s infrastructure. Following America’s military withdrawal, Afghanistan will most likely revert to pre-war conditions; Pakistan will revive state-sponsored terrorism against India; and extremism will spill into the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir.

In order to make the best of a grim situation, India must be prepared to protect its own interests at all costs. After all, as the US extricates itself from its Afghan quagmire, its own national interests will continue to trump all other considerations. But China, Pakistan, and Iran also have their own important national-security interests in Afghanistan that each will now do their utmost to guarantee. So, while US troops may be leaving Afghanistan, an end to the violence spawned by America’s war remains nothing more than a distant dream – especially for Afghanistan’s South Asian neighbors.

Jaswant Singh
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Jaswant Singh, a former Indian finance minister, foreign minister, and defense minister, is the author of Jinnah: India – Partition – Independence.

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