GIVEN ALL the economic, political, and military considerations President Obama had to juggle in deciding on the size and pace of troop withdrawals from Afghanistan, his compromise of starting slow but removing all 33,000 of the original surge forces by the end of 2012 is the least bad option. Still, success in getting US forces out of Afghanistan will depend less on troop numbers and timetables than on a sound strategy for generating a political resolution to the insurgency. There is no other realistic way to achieve a tolerable level of security in the country. But such a settlement requires more than Obama’s hopeful vision of transforming the ragged Afghan army and corrupt police into effective guardians of security.
As part of a war-ending strategy, talks with Taliban representatives, which have already begun, should be continued. But those talks must be rooted in an understanding that any agreement on power-sharing will apply only to the primarily Pashtun regions of southern and eastern Afghanistan. The non-Pashtun groups that predominate in the north will never stand for a return of Taliban rule. The northerners, who maintain command of the Afghan army, would go to war to keep the Taliban out of their region — and might even stage a military coup to stop President Hamid Karzai from striking any such deal with the Taliban.
Obama’s war-ending strategy should allow for regional deals between local authorities and the Taliban. The capital, Kabul, will have to be off the table, however, and not only because it has become a hub of economic activity and modernization. It is bad enough that some Pashtun areas may come under the Taliban’s baleful influence. Under Taliban rule from 1996 to 2001, there were practically no girls in school. Today there are about 2.5 million, and many of them are in Kabul. They and the tolerant, urban life of the capital must not be handed over to Taliban fanatics.
By the time all combat forces are withdrawn from Afghanistan, whether in 2014 or sooner, the US military’s counter-insurgency strategy should be replaced by a counter-terrorism mission based on paying Afghans for actionable intelligence on Islamic extremists.
A credible Afghan partner will be indispensable for any such transition. But Karzai’s government, which functions more as a criminal enterprise than a true government, cannot be that partner. So a crucial component of American strategy must be to work around Karzai and to help open up a space for real politics in Afghanistan.
A way to bring younger, more honest, and more competent political actors forward would be for Obama to announce that Afghanistan’s constitution must not be flouted — that when Karzai’s term ends in 2014, he will leave office. The prospect of a post-Karzai democratic succession could open up possibilities for power — and the authority to cut local deals with the Taliban — to flow to regional governors and district chiefs.
Even the least noxious outcome in Afghanistan is likely to be messy and morally compromising. But a supple and determined political strategy may avoid the worst — so that more of Americans’ attention and resources can be redirected to nation-building at home.