By Armon Saied
Now that the United States has essentially withdrawn troops and suspended combat missions in Iraq, the question of when the War in Afghanistan will end comes to mind. With more than $300 billion spent and more than 1,000 military fatalities since Operation Enduring Freedom began in 2001, the United States has made less progress toward a lasting regional solution than many would have anticipated. From its very inception, America’s objective in Afghanistan should have been approached simply as the United Front Commander and Afghan National Hero, Ahmad Shah Massoud, recommended in his 2001 visit to the European Parliament, “One can achieve the goal of peace in Afghanistan…by the support of the resistance, and by putting pressure on Pakistan to stop its support for the [terrorist] groups.” Fortunately, American, British, and the other Allied forces embraced the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan throughout the conflict and have succeeded in driving out the Taliban from much of the country, recapturing Kabul, and installing President Karzai. However, taking into account the great number of military and civilian casualties (close to 20,000 total fatalities), along with all of the money and time the U.S. has spent on the war, it is disheartening for many, at home and abroad, to know that a lasting peaceful solution is still distant. As the Taliban still thrives in the Pashtun regions of southern Afghanistan and tribal areas near the border of Pakistan, it seems United States operations have not and probably will not completely cut away the cancer that is plaguing Afghanistan.
Currently, the United States is at a crucial junction. With all of the domestic problems that require attention at home, it is imprudent to continue liberally pouring money and troops into this seemingly endless conflict. At the same time, however, it would be humiliating and demoralizing for the United States to withdraw without a strategic victory. Many politicians at home would be quick to complain of our leaders’ weakness and willingness to accept defeat. But are our costly efforts being exerted in the right places?
It is well known that Pakistan has been bolstering the Taliban since its first few conflicts with local warlords in 1994 by means of monetary, military, and ideological support. In a campaign for regional hegemony, Pakistan’s spy service, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), has long attempted to prop up a government in Kabul that would yield a collaborative ally for Pakistan in its ongoing clash with India. A CIA review of the ISI revealed direct ties between ISI members and the militant Taliban leader, Jalaluddin Haqqani, who may have connections to senior Al Qaeda members in the tribal areas near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Haqqani has been accused of involvement in several deadly suicide bombings that took place in Afghanistan.
This situation is further complicated by the fact that the United States is reluctant to openly criticize Pakistan’s relations with the Taliban because of the enduring need for intelligence from the ISI and the Pakistan government in the war against terrorism. Pakistan is considered a vital ally in the conflict in Afghanistan despite the divided loyalties in their intelligence service, which may be harming U.S. and NATO troops. The United States has provided approximately $18 billion in civilian and military aid to Pakistan in the past 9 years, making Pakistan one of the top few recipients of U.S. funds. This may be a cause for some worry, as Pakistan’s government is considered one of the most corrupt in the world, and the extent of the its support for terrorist groups is not entirely known. Some Americans would argue that these funds could be better spent at home, or at least channeled into a more reliable investment. A direct U.S. confrontation of Pakistan, with regard to its possible motives of destabilizing Afghanistan and exerting influence on India through its relations with proxy militant groups, seems unlikely. After all, besides its regional sway, Pakistan has a small, but significant point of leverage over the United States with respect to its possession of nuclear weapons, which requires additional U.S. funded security in order to avoid terrorist theft of nuclear weapons (not to mention Pakistan is a non-signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty).
Thus, it seems that a long-standing solution to the current state of affairs in Afghanistan will require further cooperation with other nations, in addition to our peculiar ally, Pakistan. As all of the neighboring states have a stake in Afghanistan’s security, Washington would do well to renew and strengthen the intelligence collaboration it had with Russia, India, Tajikistan, Iran, and China at the start of the war. Cooperation from these countries will require a U.S. plan for withdrawal in the next several years, as no country wants to be directly associated with the unpopular military presence of the United States, especially because of the growing number of civilian casualties. A United Nations sponsored peace proposal, which may develop from the UN talks that took place this year, is the next step in stabilizing Afghanistan with the help of the country’s neighbors, U.S. diplomats, and other regional players. Perhaps Pakistan, under pressure from neighboring countries, will join this group and contribute to U.N. negotiations.
Furthermore, President Karzai is preparing for talks with Taliban leaders and has repeatedly invited Mullah Omar to engage in a peace process. The Taliban stated their refusal to engage in talks until foreign troops leave Afghanistan. There is the possibility of a future negotiation settlement granting Pashtun provinces in south and east Afghanistan autonomous province status, in return for a ban of terrorist activities, such as those of Al-Qaeda. However, Obama needs to lay down a plan for withdrawing troops in the next few years. Iran and India, which are still giving economic aid to the government in Kabul to help fight militant groups, Russia, which is suffering from terrorist attacks in its Muslim south, and China, which is seeking business opportunities in Afghanistan’s natural resources, all have a great desire to stabilize the country and contain the Taliban. Regional collaboration from Afghanistan’s neighbors, and a plan for a U.S. and NATO withdrawal in the near future, could act as a catalyst for the U.N. moderated peace process. History’s judgment of the United States’ efforts in Afghanistan is not yet written, but it is presently clear that the United States can make a smarter investment toward finishing the immense task that was undertaken back in 2001 by engaging the nations with an equal, if not greater need, for a stable Afghanistan.