For some time, I have been writing that the US has lost sight of its al Qaeda-rationalized strategic objectives in Afghanistan and stumbled into a civil war. Recently resigned US official Matthew Hoh also frames the challenge in Afghanistan as that of a 35 year old civil war in which the forces are far bigger than anything the US can influence.
Now, my friend and IISS consulting senior fellow Nader Mousavizadeh also characterizes the mess in Afghanistan as a civil war in which one side is inimical to American interests. He wants to condition the support for the Karzai government on a clean-up campaign.
My objection to this approach is that it remains a far cry from why we went to Afghanistan and doesn’t on its merits and given other possible containment strategies justify the sacrifice of lives and scarce financial resources.
The Afghanistan quagmire is also an ongoing global embarrassment of American impotence in failing to redirect and rewire one of the poorest nations of the world. The cost can’t be measured just in terms of troops and dollars but also fueling Iran’s ambitions and those of other would-be foes and the costs of doubt in US abilities among allies.
Two conclusions are inescapable from the fiasco of Afghanistan’s presidential elections and the McChrystal assessment: There is no electoral solution to Afghan government’s crisis of legitimacy, and there is no military solution to the challenge of the Taliban. And when observing the current Afghan conflict not from the perspective of America’s post-9/11 intervention, but from Afghanistan’s own quarter-century of warfare, a third conclusion becomes still more apparent: What we confront is not, in fact, an insurgency but rather a civil war — one whose resolution can only be found in a new decentralized Afghan politics based on the enduring, if ugly, realities of power there, and not through another decade of Western military intervention.
If there is one lesson to be drawn from the withdrawal of Hamid Karzai’s main rival from the second round of the elections — and his own subsequent appointment as president for another term — it is that the ability of outsiders to influence the existing politics of Afghanistan is now near zero, even when the object of our entreaties is a politician whose very existence has long depended entirely on Western support and funding. Like a patient rising from a hospital bed after a near-death experience only to rob his doctor blind on the way out the door, Karzai has conclusively demonstrated that his utility to Western interests — as well as to the Afghan people whom he’s grossly robbed of a chance for representative government — is over.
This leaves the West with a stark dilemma. We can proceed to invest a government we ourselves have called fraudulent with an authority that few Afghans are willing to grant it, hoping it will eventually eschew the corrupt behavior that has sustained its power to date. Or we can make the unquestionably more difficult decision and insist, as a condition of our continued support, that a new political compact be put in place.
Nader Mousavizadeh’s proposal for a new political compact is actually quite intriguing and along the lines of something I support — which is to get a Bonn Conference II in place drawing together various power players across the board in Afghanistan. He suggests that Lakhdar Brahimi and Richard Holbrooke engineer this. I would add that the personalities driving this also include Pashtun leaders technically but not too enthusiastically inside the Taliban tent and include participants from Iran and other key regional stakeholders.
But that kind of political compact may be undermined rather than moved along by a surge of more US hard power into Afghanistan.
Civil wars that matter can be approached with a combination of approaches — and a new diplomatically purshed governing compact in Afghanistan is an interesting approach, but the tough truth is that this is not what General McChrystal is calling for.
— Steve Clemons