US Marines on patrol in an Afghan school building, May 1, 2009. (Reuters/Goran Tomasevic)
In Afghanistan, the war goes on. As The Nation documented recently, tens of thousands of Afghan civilians have died since the war began in 2001, and with the war having entered its thirteenth year, there’s no end in sight. The American combat mission is winding down, but if the Obama administration has its way there won’t be an end to the counterterrorism war in Afghanistan for years to come. And, in an editorial today, “An Exit Strategy from Afghanistan,” The New York Times admits without irony that what the United States has got for a dozen lethal years in Afghanistan is a stalemate:
As it winds down its 12-year-old military commitment in Afghanistan, the United States is still looking for a face-saving way out of a conflict that seems headed, at best, for a stalemate.
Last week, Secretary of State John Kerry made a surprise visit to Afghanistan to put pressure on President Hamid Karzai to accept American terms for a continued US military presence past 2014. Among the terms that the United States wants: immunity from any prosecution by Afghan authorities for crimes and atrocities committed by US forces and permission to engage in Special Forces raids against Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups anywhere in the country, even though only a few dozen Al Qaeda members remain. Despite the positive spin that Kerry and the State Department put on his visit, however, he utterly failed to get a deal. As Reuters noted:
A draft pact known as the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) was hammered out in Kabul last weekend by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. But he left without a final deal as Afghan President Hamid Karzai said only the assembly, the Loya Jirga, had the authority to decide contentious issues.
And the Loya Jirga, a big national meeting of tribal elders, warlords, clergy and others, might not cotton to American demands to allow US troops free reign to engage in counterterrorism—especially if Karzai, who is scheduled to leave office in 2014 after elections next spring, steers them in another direction.
There’s an unofficial Halloween deadline for a pact. Otherwise, the military is hinting, the United States will have to start dismantling everything, including bases nearby that might be used to evacuate US forces and equipment, and making other plans.
In Kerry’s mind, of course, is the fact that when a similar situation faced the United States in Iraq five years ago, the Iraqis rejected American demands, and the incoming Obama administration proved unable to satisfy Iraqi concerns, so the United States pulled out completely from Iraq. The difference between Iraq and Afghanistan, though, is that while Iraq has oil revenues to keep it solvent, Afghanistan has nothing, and it’s totally dependent on the United States and other Western allies to provide aid. That aid, the Obama administration is not-so-subtly telling Karzai, depends on Kabul allowing the United States to keep troops in-country. As the Times editorial puts it:
Congress is unlikely to keep paying for the Afghan Army and police, at a cost that could range from $4 billion to $6 billion, unless Americans are deployed there.
Meanwhile, the Taliban continues to strike US and Afghan targets, including an attack on an international convoy last week, the assassination of a provincial governor, and other high-profile actions. In its editorial, the Times notes correctly that a political deal with the Taliban is essential to preserve Afghanistan’s security, or some semblance of it, after 2014, but that so far there’s no sign of any movement there, and it says that the talks with the Taliban, which seemed to get going earlier this year, won’t restart until after the April elections.
The Obama administration has to redouble its efforts here, coupling a pledge to withdraw and any all US forces from Afghanistan unconditionally with a diplomatic offensive to get Pakistan, Iran, India, Saudi Arabia and others countries on board with a plan to rebalance and reorganize the government in Kabul.
Check out The Nation’s in-depth report on the civilian death toll of the ongoing war in Afghanistan.