Three big Afghan-related news items came out of not Afghanistan today: Pakistan’s official view of the U.S. raid that killed Bin Laden, the U.S.’s reconsideration of its withdrawal timelines and endstate, and the closure (probably temporarily) of the Taliban office in Qatar. All three are strong indicators of serious problems Afghanistan will face post-2014.
The After Bin Laden was killed, the Government of Pakistan commissioned a high-ranking group to study and analyze the failures that led up to the U.S.’s ability to locate and kill the most wanted man in the world on its territory, less than 100kms from the capital, and escape without any interference. The Abbottabad Commission’s Report (337 pages, but a very interesting read; BBC summary here) highlights the Pakistani failures that allowed Bin Laden to enjoy sanctuary in the country (without naming any officials as complicit), as well as the failures during and after the raid to counter what was described as an “American act of war.” The raid, in conjunction with drone strikes, the Raymond Davis case, and other perceived violations of sovereignty, have made Pakistan’s willingness to cooperate in U.S. policies towards Afghanistan post-2014 extremely unlikely. Pakistan has almost no reason not to support a pro-Pakistani Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan after 2014; even aside from the lingering desire to reassert itself to the U.S., Pakistan perceives Karzai as being too sympathetic towards India (William Dalrymple wrote dramatically on the larger IndoPak struggle for Afghanistan last month) for comfort, and the “traditional” (pre-2001) reasons for Pakistan to mold Afghanistan to its will all indicate Islamabad will not be sitting on the sidelines in Afghanistan. The report, towards the end, bemoans the conditions in Pakistan that have forsaken human development for unclear security goals, and the lack of civilian oversight and coordination between security bodies in Pakistan, and makes recommendations to address those issues, but whether or not that takes place is a separate topic.
The second news item, the U.S. consideration of both a quicker and/or complete withdrawal (NYT), should surprise no one. Washington is increasingly frustrated with Kabul, and the “residual force” and aid post-2014 is one of the few points of leverage left to Washington with the Karzai government. It is my view that American troops are not necessary for Afghanistan to remain largely secure; money and materiel is another matter. Najibullah famously outlasted his own benefactors in power (granted, only by a few months), but from 1989-1992 he had only a few hundred Soviet combat advisors for his Afghan security forces, and significantly less aid than the Kabul government is receiving from international donors now. But Karzai is not Najibullah, and I think very much wants a U.S. residual presence in Afghanistan as long as the Afghan people can stomach it. He wants that residual presence for two reasons: First, to make sure that Afghanistan remains at the forefront of American thinking (and giving), and second, in case he really does need them. It may be that the historical analogy he fears is not that of Najibullah, but of Nguyen Van Thieu.
Which leads to the third piece of news, that the Taliban closed their office in Doha. It would seem that the Taliban is protesting the Afghan government’s demand to the Qatari government that the Taliban flag and nameplate reading “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” be taken down (Pajhwok). It’s a petty dispute, and one that the U.S. has unfortunately gotten in the middle of, being seen as both a supporter of Karzai, and of talking with the Taliban. The Taliban, operating from a position of relative strength, seem to view the talks as window-dressing and not terribly serious. President Karzai is merely angry; why anyone thought he would react differently is baffling. the Taliban have repeatedly refused to talk to the legitimate Afghan government, labeling Karzai an American puppet, and saying they will only speak to the Americans directly. To expect Karzai or anyone to ignore or sanction an enemy opening a quasi-diplomatic office in a nearby state, so that they may better parlay with Kabul’s partners and allies, is insane. Unfortunately, it is easier for the U.S. to force Karzai back to the table, by threatening to withdraw early (despite repeated rhetoric about partnership post-2014), than it is for the U.S. to force the Taliban to do anything. Simply put, the U.S. has more positive and negative leverage with the Kabul government than it does over Taliban leadership.
As it is, the Taliban has little reason to engage in negotiations, with Kabul or Washington (there was an interesting discussion of these negotiations yesterday at the New America Foundation; the video is well worth the watch), given that the NATO/ISAF timeline is known. Instead, the Taliban seems perfectly willing to wait until 2015. A U.S. or NATO residual force (and accompanying aid) is the last bargaining chip Washington has, with either Karzai or the Taliban. It would be foolish for the U.S. to throw that chip away out of spite (for the record, I don’t think the U.S. will).
Anyway, interesting news day.