By now, almost all the likely outcomes of US strategy in Afghanistan are bad ones. They range from unending civil war, with government forces barely managing to hold their own against the Taliban, to de facto partition of the country. There is a chance that the Taliban would accept a settlement involving a timetable for the complete withdrawal of US forces and a neutral central government of respected Muslim figures, together with de facto Taliban control of the Pashtun heartland in the south and Western economic aid. In return they would have to promise to exclude Al Qaeda and crack down on opium cultivation in their areas (as they did in 2000).
Given that most ordinary Taliban fighters, as expressed in a survey organized by Graeme Smith of the Toronto Globe and Mail, want the exit of Western troops and a Muslim (but not necessarily Taliban) government, it's likely that the rejection of such terms by the Taliban leadership would undermine their support on the ground. This solution would, however, be heavily dependent on the help of Pakistan as a mediator and as one of the regional guarantors of the subsequent settlement.
The top leadership of the Afghan Taliban is based in Pakistani Baluchistan under the protection of Pakistani military intelligence, and Pakistan has prevented the United States from launching drone attacks on them there (in contrast with the intensive campaign against targets in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas to the north). Taliban forces use Pakistani territory for rest and recuperation, with the support of the local Pashtun population. Pakistan also has close ties to the two other Afghan Pashtun Islamist forces allied to the Taliban, the Hizb-e-Islami of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and the Haqqani network in the Afghan region of Greater Paktika. All of this gives Pakistan considerable influence over the Afghan Taliban—though it must be stressed that this influence is also limited. Any settlement brokered by Pakistan would have to be one the Taliban could accept without humiliation.
But if Pakistan is vital to a settlement, Pakistan is also vital in itself. It cannot be emphasized too strongly that the survival of Pakistan, not Afghanistan, is the most important issue for Western and global security in that region. With six times Afghanistan's population, plus nuclear weapons, a highly trained 500,000-man army and a huge diaspora (especially in Britain), Pakistan would increase the international terrorist threat by orders of magnitude if it collapsed. There is a widespread (though exaggerated) view in the West that the weakness of the Pakistani state and the strength of Islamist support makes the country's collapse a real possibility. Leaving aside the danger (as exposed by WikiLeaks) of nuclear materials and skills reaching terrorist groups, the disintegration of the Pakistani army, with its highly trained engineers and anti-aircraft forces, would vastly increase the "conventional" terrorist threat to India and the West.
It was therefore with horror that I recently heard that the diminished threat from Al Qaeda means that some Western security officials are suggesting that the West can afford to put much more pressure on Islamabad to attack Taliban strongholds in Pakistan's border region, even though this may lead to greater destabilization within Pakistan. This is lunatic reasoning. The diminished power of Al Qaeda should be cause for the United States and NATO to find ways to withdraw from Afghanistan, not step up the fight against the Taliban—since it was to fight Al Qaeda that we went there in the first place. As for the terrorist threat to the West, this has never come from the Afghan Taliban—but it increasingly comes from the Pakistani Taliban and their allies, as the case of attempted Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad demonstrates.
Unfortunately, the current US strategy is headed in the opposite direction from using Pakistan to broker a settlement, and toward an intensified fight against the Taliban and intensified pressure on Pakistan. Even worse, there are barely the rudiments of a Plan B if that strategy fails. If it proves impossible to strengthen the Afghan National Army sufficiently within the next two years, the options will be stark: either US forces will have to fight on in Afghanistan indefinitely or they will have to accept the probable loss of the south and east of the country and either unending civil war or de facto partition through bloody war rather than negotiated agreement. Among other things, all these options will be bad for Pakistan, especially if India is drawn into much greater support for the anti-Taliban forces in Afghanistan. This would in effect lead to an Indo-Pakistani proxy war in Afghanistan.
It is worth looking closely at Soviet strategy in Afghanistan, for the current US approach is a variant of that strategy, albeit with serious—and potentially disastrous—differences. This is to build up the Afghan army to the point where it can hold the main population centers against the insurgents, even as the United States and NATO try to break off as many of those insurgents as possible through a mixture of bribery and military pressure.
This is not in itself a mistaken approach. After all, Soviet strategy succeeded. Backed by Soviet airpower, the Afghan army the Soviets left behind inflicted a shattering defeat on the mujahedeen in Jalalabad in the spring of 1989 (I was there on the mujahedeen side, as a young journalist for the Times of London). And with the Soviets gone, the nationalist element in hostility to the Kabul regime diminished, as educated and urban Afghans began to focus on what a victory of fanatical and brutalized rural guerrillas would mean for them.
The Afghan communist regime actually outlived the Soviet Union, collapsing only when Soviet subsidies ended. If one assumes that, following its withdrawal from Afghanistan, the United States is not going to imitate the Soviet Union by abandoning its global role, adopting communism and disintegrating as a state, it is by no means implausible to imagine that the Afghan army, backed by US arms, money and airpower and facing a divided opposition, could hold off the Taliban after US ground forces withdraw.
There are, however, immense problems, moral and practical, with this approach, and with how it is being pursued in detail by the US forces. Equally important, not merely does the United States not possess a Plan B but much of what the US military is doing will make the creation of a viable Plan B very difficult.
The moral problem is that under this strategy the guerrilla war in Afghanistan will go on indefinitely, albeit perhaps—but only perhaps—at a gradually diminishing rate of violence. There will be no incentive for the Taliban leadership or their hardline followers to reach a settlement; and a Kabul regime that is bound to be more and more dominated by the military is also highly unlikely to seek such a settlement. Moreover, as long as the counterinsurgency continues, the Taliban will have every incentive to go on working with Al Qaeda and terrorist groups in Pakistan, which can provide them with limited but useful expertise in everything from the construction of IEDs to medical services.
Equally important, the present Afghan state and army suffer from very important weaknesses compared with the Soviet-backed regime. Put simply, the Soviets inherited the still recognizable core of the old Afghan royal state and army as these had existed since the 1880s, together with their tradition of defending the cities and centers of government against a variety of tribal and religious rebels. Moreover, the old army was chiefly Pashtun in composition, and the man the Soviets chose to take over the state they left behind, Najibullah Khan, was a strongly Pashtun figure with prestige among some of the Pashtun tribes.
In 2001 the United States smashed the Taliban quasi state, leaving Afghanistan essentially with no state, and no armed forces but the overwhelmingly non-Pashtun militias of the Northern Alliance. Although efforts to develop the army and bring more Pashtuns into it have been moderately successful, only a very small proportion of soldiers are from the southern areas that are the Taliban's stronghold. Whether the Afghan army will be able to hold the towns in these areas after the United States leaves is therefore highly questionable.
Finally, in one critical respect US strategy is out of step with Soviet strategy, as well as with Afghan tradition. This is in Washington's insistence that "reconciliation" requires Taliban commanders to leave the Taliban publicly, submit to the regime of Hamid Karzai and the "Afghan Constitution," renounce violence and lay down their arms. In the vast majority of cases, this is simply not going to happen. It is too humiliating, and in the event of a Taliban victory it would be an automatic death sentence. Meanwhile—as leading Karzai government officials have repeatedly indicated—US airstrikes and Special Forces assassinations are killing some of the very Taliban commanders who might be persuaded to abandon the struggle, even if they will never formally surrender.
The Soviets, like the British before them, pursued a very different and much more Afghan approach: instead of paying mujahedeen commanders to change sides publicly, they paid them to pretend to fight, or to fight to a limited extent in some places while keeping key communications routes open. This strategy was pursued by the Kabul regime before and after the Soviet withdrawal, using Soviet money. Such deals were an open secret when I traveled in Afghanistan with the mujahedeen, and at one point or another they were made by many of the leading mujahedeen commanders. By contrast, in the analysis of two leading younger experts on the Taliban, Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn (in a forthcoming book, The Enemy We Created: The Myth of a Taliban/Al Qaeda Merger in Afghanistan, 1970–2010), the present strategy of killing midlevel Taliban commanders only clears the way for younger and far more radical figures to take their place.
If the United States continues this strategy indefinitely, the consequences for Pakistan could be dire. It has been argued (by the British military chief, Gen. Sir David Richards, for example, in Prospect magazine) that it is necessary to defeat the Afghan Taliban in order to protect Pakistan from Islamist extremism. The truth is almost exactly the opposite. More than any other factor, it is our campaign in Afghanistan that has radicalized Pakistanis and turned many of them not only against the West but against their own government and ruling system. In the worst case, the consequence of Western actions could be to destroy Pakistan as a state and produce a catastrophe that would reduce the problems in Afghanistan to insignificance by comparison.
Western military forces are seen by the overwhelming majority of Pakistanis with whom I have spoken over the past three years as engaged in an illegal occupation. The Pakistani government's cooperation with the United States is seen as a deep national humiliation and a betrayal of fellow Muslims. I do not endorse these views myself, but it is essential to recognize just how deep and widespread they are, and that a fateful symmetry is at work: while Western officials and journalists complain constantly that the Pakistani army is not doing enough to help the United States in Afghanistan, Pakistan's population regards it as doing far too much.
To put it at its bluntest, most Pakistanis see our presence in Afghanistan as closely akin to that of the Soviets from 1979 to 1989, and resistance to us as closely akin to the resistance of those days, and equally legitimate. These feelings are held not just by Islamists but by those Pakistanis—the great majority of the population—who have no desire to see a Taliban-style regime in their country; just as Pakistanis in the 1980s who sympathized with the Afghan mujahedeen had no desire to see such forces rule Pakistan. In other words, sympathy for the Afghan Taliban by no means necessarily equates to sympathy for the Pakistani Taliban. I have found the former sympathy among educated people in Karachi who detest the Taliban's social program but who are prepared to allow the Afghan Taliban at least some legitimacy as a "resistance movement."
In the Pashtun areas of Pakistan, the consequence first of the anti-Soviet war in the 1980s and now of the anti-American war has been to weaken still further the effectiveness and meaning of the frontier dividing the Pashtuns of Afghanistan and Pakistan. It is this ethno-religious solidarity, more than continuing support by the Pakistani state, that is providing the Afghan Taliban with their bases inside Pakistan. This support from large elements of the Pakistani population will continue as long as Western soldiers are present in Afghanistan. Their presence, as well as US drone strikes on targets in Pakistan, also helps legitimize the campaign of the Pakistani Taliban against the Pakistani state. Since the survival of that state is a US interest that vastly outweighs anything that might happen in Afghanistan, it follows that the US goal should be to reduce that presence as soon as this can be managed, not to follow a strategy that risks prolonging it indefinitely.
If we are going to start talking to Mullah Omar and the Taliban leadership, we need to start doing so now—not in the expectation that this will lead to an early settlement but in the knowledge derived from all previous experiences that such negotiations typically last for years before reaching a conclusion. It will take some time for positions to become clear and requisite levels of trust to be created. In such negotiations intermediaries are also typically required—which, under the circumstances, can only be Pakistan. American and NATO troops should fight on to defend their existing positions and buy time for the Afghan army to develop, but attacks on Taliban commanders and drone strikes in Pakistan should be drastically scaled back. Above all, there should be no extension of these attacks to new areas of Pakistan in an effort to kill Mullah Omar and other elements of the Taliban leadership, since one cardinal principle of negotiations is that you cannot try to kill the person with whom you are negotiating.
Of course, this approach may not work. The Taliban may prove too fanatical and ambitious, and it may prove impossible to persuade three other key players to accept such a settlement. These include Hamid Karzai, who would have to step down to make way for a neutral Afghan leader (unless, of course, negotiations drag on till 2014, when he is due to leave office); the commanders of the Afghan National Army, who would have to accept a purely token military presence in most Pashtun areas; and the US Army, which would have to accept something well short of victory. And regarding this third element, let us face facts: the US military command has great political power in Washington, which will constrain the options of both Democrats and Republicans on Afghanistan and other issues.
However, something short of victory does not have to mean open defeat and humiliation, in the style of Saigon in 1975. If this can be avoided, then other scenarios can be presented as at least qualified US successes, above all if they involve Taliban commitments against terrorism and heroin. Intelligent and candid US commanders already know that they cannot "win" in any traditional sense; but they are determined not to lose—and rightly so. Americans should not wish their armed forces to be led by quitters. The trick will be in the public presentation of any settlement.
Behind all these questions lies once again the issue of Pakistan's role, Pakistan's future and the US role in that future. Since our options for coercing Pakistan are so limited—at least, without actions that would risk destroying Pakistan and involving us in far worse disasters—we should try to make the best of an admittedly very difficult situation and seek Pakistan's help in finding a settlement to the Afghanistan conflict.