By next September 33,000 US troops will have left Afghanistan, and if the Obama administration sticks to its timetable, additional withdrawals will follow, removing nearly all foreign forces by 2014. But worrying recent developments, including Pakistan’s refusal to attend a critical conference in Bonn and horrific massacres of Shiites in Afghanistan, are a stark warning that the country could plunge back into civil war when US and NATO forces leave. To avoid that prospect, the United States will have to execute a deft and complicated series of diplomatic maneuvers, with great urgency.
But it isn’t at all clear that the administration, which is pursuing what appears to be a hopelessly contradictory policy of warmaking, peace talks and development assistance—what Secretary of State Hillary Clinton calls “fight, talk, build”—knows what it’s doing.
The Bonn conference was a worldwide confab involving scores of nations, including the United States, China, Russia and Iran, and hosted by German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Held exactly ten years after the December 2001 Bonn conference that created the framework for post-Taliban Afghanistan, this year’s gathering was designed a year ago to provide a stamp of approval for what Washington hoped would be an accord between Afghanistan, the US-led coalition, Pakistan and the Taliban.
But the Taliban and their allies, who have flirted with peace talks for years, didn’t attend. Worse, Pakistan—which created, armed and trained the Taliban; protected Al Qaeda (including Osama bin Laden); and backs groups like the Haqqani network that are responsible for assassinations, suicide bombings and such high-profile acts as the 2009 assault on the Indian embassy in Kabul—boycotted Bonn, too.
The ostensible reason behind Pakistan’s decision not to come to Bonn, which all but crippled the conference, was the still-unexplained killing of two dozen Pakistani soldiers at a border post near Afghanistan by a sustained US aircraft and artillery barrage on November 26. Pakistan, seething with anti-American resentment over what many Pakistanis see as cavalier US infringements on their sovereignty—from the January killing of two Pakistanis by an armed CIA contractor to the incursion that killed Osama bin Laden on May 1 to the barrage of drone attacks on Pakistan’s tribal areas—was predisposed to react strongly to the border incident. And react it did, not only avoiding Bonn but closing down crucial US supply lines and demanding US abandonment of a drone base in Pakistan. And Pakistan’s army is flexing its muscle again. Amid coup rumors, President Asif Ali Zardari left the country on December 6, after suffering what was called a mild heart attack.
Like other US-Pakistan rifts, this one is likely to blow over. Despite their differences, and there are many, the countries need each other. Pakistan desperately needs US and Western support, since its economy is a basket case and it is outclassed by rival India’s growing might. And the United States needs Pakistan to bring the Taliban and other insurgents to the bargaining table. The last thing the Obama administration needs, as it winds down the Afghan war, is a confrontation with Pakistan.
Even so, that hasn’t stopped hawks in Washington from talking about carrying the war across the border. Ever since US agencies unveiled National Intelligence Estimates last year warning that Pakistan’s sanctuaries for Afghan insurgents were a major obstacle to military progress in the war, there have been calls for NATO to go beyond drone attacks in Pakistan. That would be disastrous.
If the military is indeed thinking about escalating the war into Pakistan, was that the message lurking behind the November 26 attack? If so, the White House needs to yank strongly on the Pentagon’s leash. According to Vali Nasr, an adviser to the late Richard Holbrooke when he handled the portfolio on Afghanistan and Pakistan, there are two US policies on Afghanistan: that of the White House and State Department, which prefer to talk, and that of the CIA and Defense Department, which prefer to fight. (Reportedly, Obama, under pressure from the Pentagon, hesitated for more than a week before he phoned President Zardari to provide a qualified apology for the November 26 killings.) Even many US generals know that the war in Afghanistan can’t be won militarily. So the United States needs an all-out focus on a settlement, even after the crash-and-burn conference in Bonn.
That effort ought to start with a unilateral US/NATO cease-fire. By halting drone attacks, the United States could provide a face-saving way for Pakistan to enter serious negotiations. A cease-fire would also end the mixed messages sent to the Taliban and their allies and provide a true test of their willingness to come to the table. Even after the assassination of Burhanuddin Rabbani, Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s designee to explore talks with the Taliban—apparently carried out by a Taliban operative with Pakistan’s support—Karzai remains ready to talk to Pakistan and the Taliban. “Pakistan’s role in any negotiations with the Taliban is very important, and that is what we are seeking,” Karzai said the day after the Bonn conference.
No talks can be successful, of course, without a broad regional accord involving all of Afghanistan’s neighbors, especially Pakistan, India, Iran and Russia—important players with allies among Afghanistan’s factions. Coaxing Pakistan and the Taliban into talks while getting the region’s powers to underwrite a rebalanced Afghan accord and, very likely, a new Constitution, is complex indeed. With each passing day, it seems the Obama administration isn’t up to the task, and that could mean we will remain bogged down in the quagmire even after 2014.
That’s unfortunate, because the American people have turned sharply against the war. Even among the Republican presidential candidates, it’s hard to find out-and-out hawks on Afghanistan. Recently the entire Senate, led by Jeff Merkley, adopted by voice vote an amendment to a Pentagon spending bill calling on Obama to accelerate the drawdown in Afghanistan. Americans want out, and the Senate, finally, is getting the message.