AmericanOpinion

The Afghan gamble

Afghanistan may yet surprise doubtful observers

By Anatol Lieven

As far as US strategy in Afghanistan is concerned, the die is now cast and the gamble made. The United States will continue to support the Karzai administration and whatever its successor in Kabul may be. Ground forces will withdraw by the end of 2014, but US military bases and Special Forces will remain at least until 2024, by agreement with the Kabul government. As a result of this agreement, there can be no peace settlement with the Afghan Taliban leadership, which has repeatedly declared that any long-term presence of US forces would make agreement impossible.

This US strategy involves a triple gamble: that the Afghan National Army (ANA) will be able to hold the line against the Taliban; that once Western soldiers are no longer visibly present in most of Afghanistan, a large number of ordinary Taliban fighters will give up the fight and go home; and that when President Karzai’s present term comes to an end in 2014 and he is constitutionally bound to step down, it will be possible to find a successor who can prevent the multiple ethnic, factional, and personal rivalries on the anti-Taliban side in Afghanistan from tearing the political scene in Kabul apart.

None of these are irrational or impossible gambles. I vividly remember how, when I was a journalist for the Times (London) covering the Afghan War in 1988-89 from the side of the Pakistan-based anti-Soviet Mujahedin, the overwhelming consensus among Western journalists and analysts was that when the Soviet forces withdrew, the communist state that they left behind would be overthrown in a matter of months, if not weeks. In fact, that state lasted for three years, outlived the Soviet Union itself, and indeed only fell apart because, after the Soviet collapse in the winter of 1991, essential Soviet supplies of money, arms, and fuel dried up.

With hindsight, we had missed a number of key factors. Firstly—and this was brought home to me with shattering force by the contrast between the battle of Jalalabad in March 1989 and previous travel with the Mujahedin—there is a tremendous difference between guerrilla warfare, which relies on the dispersal of forces to avoid superior enemy firepower, and concentration of forces to attack defended cities. The Mujahedin were shot to pieces at Jalalabad. The same will happen to the Taliban if they concentrate forces to attack cities held by the Kabul government.

Secondly, we did not realise the extent to which, once the hated Soviet forces had gone, many ordinary Afghans, especially in the cities, would begin to concentrate their minds on the very unattractive aspects of possible Mujahedin victory. And lastly, we did not realise the extent to which Soviet money and agreements with Communist forces on sharing the heroin trade had neutralised many local Mujahedin commanders—not to the point of openly going over to the government, but of onlypretending to fight.

A combination of all these factors may also work for the Kabul government and its Western backers after 2014. All the same though, this is a very considerable gamble. For if there are similarities between the Soviet position in 1989 and the US position today, there are also differences. The Soviet military left completely. US aircraft and special forces will remain, and will continue to carry out raids in support of the Kabul government. This may strengthen that government militarily, but at the price of maintaining the impression of US occupation among many Afghans.

With these forces, the US can back up the ANA in successfully defending Kandahar and other cities against being stormed by the Taliban; but given everything that we have seen in recent years, can the ANA really hold Helmand, for example, without the help of US and British ground forces?

If Washington allows Helmand to fall, this could well set off a domino effect which leads to the fall of Kandahar—not through storm, but through the defection of sections of its garrison that see which way the tide is running. For what many Western analysts have not realised is that a great many Afghan soldiers are not in the ANA for love of democracy or Karzai, but only for pay, and that they often have close relatives in the Taliban. If, on the other hand, the US has to launch massive air attacks and special forces attacks to save Helmand from falling, involving largescale civilian casualties, then it will not be clear either to Afghans or Americans in what sense the US has actually withdrawn.

Perhaps most importantly of all Moscow did not have to worry about the appearance of democracy, and had in Najibullah Khan an allied dictator who was formidable in himself and commanded real respect (mixed with hatred) among many members of the Pashtun ethnicity. Karzai commands no such respect, and Washington has no idea whom to replace him with in 2014.

Finally, there is the wild card of Pakistan. There is no chance whatsoever of Pakistan either attacking the Afghan Taliban or of pushing them towards a peace settlement which they are bound to reject. This means that a highly tense US-Pakistani relationship will continue. At any moment, this could be drastically inflamed by a worst version of one of the incidents that we have seen over the past year: a US raid to kill an al Qaeda leader in Pakistan, which this time meets Pakistani resistance; a fresh instance of US forces killing Pakistani soldiers on the border; or, worst of all, a terrorist attack on US soil linked to Pakistani-based militants, leading to a greatly intensified and extended US drone campaign against targets in Pakistan. This in turn could lead to greatly increased Pakistani support for the Taliban.

Given all these fears, I advocated a genuine US attempt at a settlement with the Taliban. It is clear however that this is not going to happen, at least for a considerable time to come. For better or worse, the United States and its allies are stuck with the gamble outlined above and we will just have to hope that they win it.