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The Outlook For Afghanistan
Michael Hart is a Royal Air Force (RAF) officer who served in Afghanistan from 2008-09 and was director of defense studies for the RAF from 2010-11. He writes an extensive essay on the West and the outlook for Afghanistan in the March/April 2012 issue of The National Interest. I’m imagining the piece was written about four weeks ago and is rather timely given the awful events of the past week involving the inadvertent burning of Qurans by U.S. troops and the resulting riots that, as of this writing, have led to the deaths of four American soldiers, including two officers shot in the back of the head by a probable Taliban insider in the Afghan interior ministry.
Following are just a few excerpts from Mr. Hart’s piece.
“The West’s military engagement in Afghanistan is entering its eleventh year and has another two years to go before the end of combat operations in 2013 or 2014. Whatever the result of the international conferences that began last year in Istanbul and Bonn to elicit support for a successor state, one thing is clear: after Western forces draw down, Afghanistan won’t bear much resemblance to the Western vision that fueled the intervention in the first place. However effective Western military organizations are in transitioning to Afghan control, the country’s future will not be decided primarily by the residual structures and legacies of Western involvement, the current Taliban insurgency or even any formal process of reconciliation. Rather, it will be decided more by the country’s ethnic character, the particular nature of local and national governance, and the influence of neighboring powers with enduring geopolitical and strategic imperatives in the region far stronger than those of the West.
“In other words, the future of Afghanistan will be determined by forces that antedate the latest Western effort to direct a turbulent area – and which probably will long survive this and future efforts to dominate the country.
“Thus, it is possible to discern a picture of an Afghan future and to predict it will fall far short of the high hopes that attended Western engagement there following the al-Qaeda attacks in America on September 11, 2001. These were hopes of an Afghanistan ruled effectively by a central government in Kabul aligned with the West and capable of keeping the Taliban at bay. Instead, Western influence will be severely reduced. The central government in Kabul will probably be weak, as it has been for most of Afghanistan’s history. The centrifugal effect of Afghanistan’s ethnic geography will be exacerbated by intensified involvement, directly and by proxy, of competing external powers. Pakistani, Indian and Iranian influence will increase, as will that of the Afghan Taliban in Pashtun-majority areas and probably within the Kabul political establishment. In the absence of a significant improvement in the relationship between India and Pakistan, their geopolitical competition, played out by proxy, could become the dominant ideological conflict inside Afghanistan. Given the weakness of the Afghan national polity, endemic corruption and economic dependence on international aid, the long-term survival of any successor regime is doubtful, even without the challenge of a Taliban insurgency more coherent than the majuhideen insurgency of the late 1980s and early 1990s.
“Two fundamental strategic questions emerge from this picture of the Afghan future. First, in the event of a failure to manage the insurgency in the South and East, where the Taliban is strong and likely to remain strong, can a non-Taliban redoubt be sustained in northern Afghanistan? And, second, how effectively could influence be projected into the Pashtun South in order to prevent, if necessary, al-Qaeda from reestablishing an operational base in that area?
“On the first question, historical precedent suggests a non-Taliban North can be sustained. Before 2001, ethnic connections among Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazara, combined with external powers, provided sufficient support to the Northern Alliance to prevent a complete Taliban takeover of the North. But it should be noted that Taliban successes in first Herat and later Kunduz provided an opening for the organization’s later campaign against the Northern Alliance. This indicates that future durability is likely to depend on preventing any Taliban footholds outside the Pashtun-majority areas in the South and East. But given the strength of Iranian connections in western Afghanistan, this probably would mean accepting significant Iranian influence over the outcome.
“On the second question, it would appear that sufficient influence could be projected into the Pashtun South and East to prevent the area from reverting to an operational base for al-Qaeda, should that prospect emerge as a danger to the West. In other words, al-Qaeda’s freedom of operation can be disrupted after 2015 on both sides of the Durand Line, the porous and vaguely marked 1,600-mile border between Afghanistan and Pakistan that bisects the region’s ethnic Pashtuns. That is because the demands of providing support to a major counterinsurgency operation in Afghanistan would be significantly reduced after the military drawdown by America and its allies and because the example of the successful campaign that ejected the Taliban from power in 2001 is well understood by all Afghan political players….
“If the West wishes to maintain the ability to project power in Afghanistan following 2014, it will have to leverage the antipathy toward the Taliban of non-Pashtun peoples in the northern and western areas. This in turn will require a willingness and ability to work effectively with neighboring players in the region that have significant influence with certain of those non-Pashtuns of the North and West. It will also require a measure of diplomatic humility.”
“History suggests that Afghanistan ultimately always follows its own path, guided in arcane and often obscure ways by powerful competing forces of ethnicity, tribalism, religion, geography, regional feuds, a fervor of national protectiveness and unbending obstinacy. For centuries, these forces have militated against a strong central government in Kabul and all manner of foreign incursion.
“So will it be with the latest Western effort to fashion and direct the Afghan future. A measure of stability is possible following the decade-long Western involvement, if the Taliban can be confined to majority-Pashtun areas, if the non-Taliban North can resist Taliban incursion, if the influence of neighboring countries can help maintain an equilibrium of competing forces, and if Western nations – particularly America – exercise deft regional diplomacy combined with a measure of restraint commensurate with their ability to influence regional events.
“After ten years of efforts to shape Afghan society in ways favorable to Western interests, the long-term societal and geopolitical consequences of Western engagement are very different from those envisaged in 2002.”
I’ll get back to my promised piece on Pakistan next Hot Spots in two weeks.