Shape a Peaceful Afghan Exit

President Obama has been correct in one part of his response to the killing of 16 Afghan civilians by an American soldier on Sunday: Such disasters must not lead to a panic-stricken “rush for the exit” by America and NATO forces in Afghanistan.

If the United States is to emerge from this conflict with some honor, and if Afghanistan is to have any chance of avoiding future civil war, it is essential that Obama stick to his promise.

A flight by the United States would be seen purely as a response to Western losses, reflect callous disregard for the plight of the Afghan people, and lead to justified feelings of triumph on the part of the Taliban and their allies.

Equally important, it would undercut Washington’s ability to shape a peace settlement. The present deadline for a withdrawal of U.S. and NATO ground forces by the end of 2014 allows a reasonable time to search for such a settlement — if the United States uses that time well. On this point, unfortunately, the Obama administration’s approach is not encouraging. If it continues, the current U.S. strategy will likely bring disaster to Afghanistan after 2014.

In the first place, Western talk of success in building up the Afghan state seems little more than whistling in the dark. Not only is that state incorrigibly corrupt, in much of the country it barely exists. If the Western presence has not achieved major improvement in these areas over the last 10 years, it is hard to see what can be achieved over the next two years as the West withdraws.

The Afghan police forces, for example, are riddled with corruption and are loathed by many ordinary Afghans. Moreover, the auxiliary police forces promoted by the United States to fight the Taliban in southern Afghanistan are in many ways a throwback to the heroin-trading, grossly oppressive local militias of the early 1990s — which the Taliban came into being to crush.

More success has been achieved in building up the Afghan National Army; but the weakness of the civilian state could well make this army as much of a liability as a strength. The recent history of Pakistan, much of Africa, and Afghanistan in the 1970s shows what is likely to happen when the military is the only strong institution in a very weak state.

A future military takeover in Afghanistan is made more likely by the fact that Washington has no plan for who to put in place after President Hamid Karzai steps down, as he is constitutionally bound to do, in 2014. This is not the Obama administration’s fault. Even the anti-Taliban elements of Afghan society are so fractured along ethnic and political lines that it may be impossible to find a candidate who could take over as an executive president without bringing down the entire existing political order.

Some senior Western military figures say they believe a “half-way decent military dictatorship” is the best that can be hoped for. That might be true if Afghan soldiers were united. But the National Army too is deeply divided ethnically — and many Pashtun families deliberately have one son or nephew with the army and another with the Taliban to be sure of protection regardless of which side comes out on top.

If enough Pashtun soldiers are alienated by developments in Kabul, they will desert with their weapons to join either the Taliban or local warlords — and the army will collapse.

Given all these threats, it would make far more sense for the United States to seek a settlement with the Taliban while it still has cards to play. The Obama administration has opened direct talks with the Taliban, through a Taliban office being established in Qatar. Unfortunately, powerful sections of the Washington establishment wish to use these talks not to seek an agreement with the Taliban as a whole, but to try to split that organization. They are counting on divisions among the Taliban, even as they forget that the West’s side in the Afghan civil war is even more divided.

Moreover, one element of the Obama administration’s strategy would make agreement impossible. This is the insistence, deeply unpopular among many Afghans, that the United States retain bases, special forces and military advisers in Afghanistan until at least 2024.

Washington wants to keep forces on the ground that can both continue to hunt Al Qaeda and prop up an administration in Kabul. In practice, however, this plan risks landing the United States with the worst of all worlds. The continued presence of such forces will make agreement with the Taliban impossible, so the war will continue. And if the Kabul administration and army disintegrate, then U.S. advisers will be mired in the resulting disaster.

Instead, Washington should pursue a peace settlement along the following lines: the guarantee of a complete withdrawal of Western forces; the exclusion by the Taliban of all international terrorists from the areas they control; and a Taliban crackdown on heroin production in return for international development aid to those areas.

Central to such a settlement would be an Afghan national debate on a new constitution, abandoning the present highly centralized form of government in favor of decentralization and a nonexecutive presidency. That would allow the United States to escape from the trap of how to replace Karzai, and allow the Taliban and their allies to take effective control of the south and east of the country, while acknowledging the right of other groups to administer their own areas.

America and its allies should seek such a settlement because, after 2014, the attempt to suppress the Taliban in the south and east promises, at best, an unending conflict, at worst, a catastrophic collapse of the Afghan state. All the evidence of the past 10 years suggests that the Taliban simply have too much support in these areas and among the Pashtuns of Pakistan ever to be defeated.

The reason the Taliban should accept such a settlement is that taking over Pashtun areas where they have strong support is not at all the same thing as conquering non-Pashtun populations who are bitterly hostile to them. They had great difficulty doing this in the 1990s when only Iran and a weak Russia supported their opponents. This time, the anti-Taliban forces would receive aid from the United States, Russia and India.

In other words, another decade of civil war would be very likely to end with a de facto territorial settlement close to the one that I am advocating today. The difference would be that in the meantime innumerable more Afghans and Americans would have died.

By Anatol Lieven, a professor in the War Studies Department of King’s College London and a senior fellow of the New America Foundation. An updated version of his book Pakistan: A Hard Country appears this month in paperback.