In the short term, the war in Afghanistan will be chiefly not a military struggle but a test of American political stamina and of the capacity of the Afghan elites to maintain a minimally consensual state in Kabul. In the long term, it will be chiefly a test of the regional great powers, and their capacity to reach agreement among themselves on Afghanistan’s future. For whether the Americans leave Afghanistan soon, or hang on for a long time to come, one thing is certain – sooner or later they will leave, and Afghanistan will then revert to being a problem for Iran, Pakistan, China, India and Russia.
The US claim to be the global “indispensable nation” rests on the argument that without the USA no other nation or group of nations is capable of making or maintaining peace in any part of the world. In the Middle East and elsewhere, US policy has turned this into a self-fulfilling prophecy, by preventing any other country from playing a significant diplomatic role, and now – in the case of the Iran nuclear deal – tearing up an agreement that the USA and the other major powers had all agreed to. The USA today seems both too weak to maintain international order successfully, and yet unwilling that anyone else should try to do so. US interventions in Iraq, Libya and (to a lesser extent) Syria have themselves spread international disorder, and in the case of Saudi Arabia, the USA is backing a would-be regional hegemon whose geopolitical and ideological agendas are profoundly dangerous for international peace.
At the same time, it would be wrong not to admit that there is considerable evidence to support the US view that nobody else is likely to be able to do better. Afghanistan in the 1990s is a notable case in point. After the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, the USA notoriously lost all interest in an Afghan civil war that it had done so much to fuel. After the end of Soviet aid led to the fall of the Kabul state in 1992, the Afghan Mujahedin tore the country to pieces between them. Order of a kind was restored by the Taliban, along the only lines known to them (and perhaps indeed the only ones that could have succeeded), those of rigid Afghan religious conservatism. They did so as proxies of Pakistan, with Iran, India and Russia all giving some degree of support to the Taliban’s enemies. At no stage was regional co-operation on Afghanistan even seriously considered until 9/11 brought the USA crashing back into the already shattered remains of the Afghan porcelain shop. Will it be any different in future?
In military and financial terms, there is no pressing need at all for the USA to withdraw from Afghanistan. The US military presence has been radically reduced, and military actions limited to air strikes and special forces operations in support of the Afghan security forces. Only two US soldiers have been killed this year, and seven in 2017. Aid to the Afghan state and its forces amounts to just under $7 billion this year; some one percent of America’s total military budget. As with the Afghan Mujahedin in the period 1989-92, the Taliban can conquer large parts of the countryside, but are unable to storm defended cities in the face of the overwhelming firepower of the defenders. If the military balance were the only factor, this stalemate could go on for a very long time.
The problem is that the US ideological agenda for Afghanistan has collapsed. Parliamentary elections have been repeatedly postponed due to lack of preparedness and electoral infrastructure and fear of further political turmoil. Presidential elections have become a farce, accompanied by massive rigging and replaced in effect by a de facto (and completely unconstitutional) agreement whereby the president has to be an ethnic Pashtun but the losing non-Pashtun will be compensated with a share of power. This was the solution stitched together by Secretary of State John Kerry after the last presidential election. Whether Mike Pompeo (or whoever is Secretary of State next year) will be willing or able to repeat it in 2019 is anyone’s guess.
As for the idea that the exiting Afghan state can “tackle corruption”, “combat the heroin trade”, “promote economic development”, “build democracy”, “protect human rights” or “strengthen life-chances for Afghan women”, these are formulae which in their complete emptiness recall the last years of Leonid Brezhnev in the USSR. American officials are to be congratulated on the loyalty and discipline which allow them to make such statements with a straight face. The truth is that the USA will be very lucky if the Afghan state can simply survive without disintegrating from within due to its deep ethnic, personal and factional divisions and the greed and irresponsibility of its leaders.
The other problem when it comes to US public perceptions of the war – at least among that tiny proportion of the US public that is paying any attention to Afghanistan – is that the Islamic State (IS or Daesh) is now clearly an international terrorist threat that dwarfs the old core Al Qaeda – and IS and the Taliban are bitter enemies. IS is staffed by IS defectors, and the hardest fighting on the ground against IS has been carried out by the Taliban, not the Afghan National Army. Objectively speaking, there would therefore seem to be a good case for the USA to do a deal with the Taliban, or at least explore the possibility with a great deal more determination than has been the case (though the USA greatly worsened the chances of this by the killing of former Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour; something which not only removed the leading Taliban pragmatist but violated a fundamental principle of any peace process that you do not assassinate your potential negotiating partner).
In terms of US prestige, however, this would be a terrible gamble. The Taliban might be brought to drop their insistence on the withdrawal of US troops as a precondition of peace talks, but they will certainly insist that US troops leave as a result of any peace agreement. They have made this demand so often as the central part of their programme that it is almost impossible to imagine them abandoning it. And without US forces to back up the Kabul state, and US diplomacy to mediate its internal conflicts, it is only too easy to imagine a collapse of the existing state and a Taliban takeover of Kabul. For US soldiers, this prospect recalls the disastrous humiliation of the fall of Saigon in 1975 – though with the difference that in Afghanistan the civil war would most probably continue along new lines, with ethnic militias defending their own areas against the Taliban, forming alliances with each other, and seeking support from regional powers.
This is why regional agreement is so important. If the Afghan civil war is ever to be ended, then Pakistan, Iran, China, India and Russia have to agree on the following points: that the Taliban will gain a major share of power in Kabul and dominance in their core areas of the east and south (plus Kunduz in the north); that they will (as they have indeed promised) use this power to combat international terrorism and heroin production in Afghanistan; that they will not seek to destroy other political forces in Afghanistan (outside their core areas, where they would doubtless monopolise power) and seize complete control; that regional powers in turn would not arm and encourage other forces to attack the Taliban; and that a regional aid package would be put together to allow the Afghan state to hold together and to compensate farmers for the loss of the heroin trade. China would play a key role because of its influence on Pakistan – and therefore the Taliban – but Russia, Iran and India would all have to agree to the settlement. The obvious framework for any agreement would be the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation (SCO).
All of this looks hardly imaginable at present, especially given the deep-rooted mutual hatred and fear between India and Pakistan, and the way in which countries are being drawn onto opposite sides of the slowly-gathering struggle for influence between the USA and China. Certain basic propositions however are in my view not just imaginable but incontrovertible: that the USA will one day withdraw from Afghanistan; that without US support, the Afghan state will collapse; that since the collapse of the old Afghan state in the 1970s, the Afghans have repeatedly demonstrated their inability to reach consensus among themselves; that Afghan conflicts have been drastically worsened by outside sponsorship and intervention; and that given these facts, absent regional agreement even a Taliban takeover in Kabul would only lead to a continuation of the Afghan civil war along new lines. One day therefore the Asian powers – including Russia — will have to come together to bring peace to Afghanistan – or live forever with Afghan conflict and its consequences for themselves.