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As U.S. Exits Iraq, “Endgame” in Afghanistan Remains Elusive

Barbara Slavin

WASHINGTON, Nov 1 2011 (IPS) - Washington’s failure to gain Iraqi approval for a significant U.S. military presence in that country beyond December could make it harder for Afghanistan to agree to a similar deployment beyond 2014.

A U.S. Army Special Forces Soldier in Shah Wali Kot District, Kandahar Province, Afghanistan. Credit:  Staff Sgt. Jeremy D. Crisp/U.S. Army/CC by 2.0

A U.S. Army Special Forces Soldier in Shah Wali Kot District, Kandahar Province, Afghanistan. Credit: Staff Sgt. Jeremy D. Crisp/U.S. Army/CC by 2.0

Vali Nasr, a former senior adviser to the State Department on Afghanistan and Pakistan, said the Iraq experience could be a “model” for Afghanistan. “Nobody thought the U.S. could go completely out (of Iraq),” he told IPS Tuesday. “Now they have.”

Frank Ruggiero, the deputy special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, told IPS, “I’m not aware of a spillover” from the Iraq negotiations, which foundered over Iraqi refusal to grant U.S. forces immunity from local prosecution.

But he acknowledged that negotiations on a so-called strategic framework between the U.S. and the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai are not proceeding quickly. He said that the Afghans are focusing on issues such as U.S. night raids and detention practices rather than the question of how many U.S. forces remain in the country long-term.

Nasr and Ruggiero spoke on the sidelines of a symposium at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars that posed the question of whether there is “a regional endgame” for the decade-old U.S.-led war in Afghanistan. Participants, who included the former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, were subdued in their assessments, noting that Afghanistan’s neighbours have different priorities and have already begun to hedge their behaviour in anticipation of a U.S. withdrawal.

The Barack Obama administration is hoping that regional representatives, meeting Wednesday in Istanbul, will sign onto a series of principles declaring “full respect for Afghan sovereignty and territory”, according to a State Department official who briefed reporters Monday and asked not to be named.


The official said that diplomats are also being asked to endorse a gradual transition from U.S. security leadership to Afghan control, a political solution to the war and a so-called “New Silk Road” vision for regional economic prosperity.

Such declarations cannot paper over the real challenges Afghanistan faces in trying to build a stable future in an unsettled neighbourhood.

Kissinger, speaking in his distinctive German-accented rumbling baritone, said that U.S. administrations historically have gotten into wars with “objectives beyond the capacity of the U.S. domestic consensus required to support and implement” them. In Afghanistan’s case, he said, this included implanting a government “whose writ ran all over the country” and that would “represent some fundamental democratic principles such as women’s rights and education”.

Afghanistan, he said, “is a particularly difficult country to attempt this because it isn’t really a state (but) a nation that comes together primarily to expel foreigners.”

U.S. hopes to “win” the war are unrealistic, Kissinger suggested, given Pakistan’s harbouring of Taliban fighters. “I know of no guerrilla war that was won when there were sanctuaries within reach,” he said.

He said the Obama administration should postpone major troop withdrawals as long as possible to maintain maximum leverage and should warn the neighbours that if they do not cooperate as the U.S. withdraws, “You’ll have to take the consequences on your own.” However, Afghanistan’s two key neighbours – Pakistan and Iran – appear to prefer those consequences to a continued U.S. military presence on their borders.

Iran has sent arms to the Taliban and cultivated an economic relationship with India that will allow both to trade with Afghanistan and Central Asia by circumventing Pakistan.

Pakistan, meanwhile, is harbouring the Afghan militants with the most U.S. blood on their hands – the Haqqani network said to be responsible for a series of spectacular attacks in Kabul including attacks on the Intercontinental Hotel and U.S. embassy and a weekend suicide bombing that killed a dozen U.S. soldiers.

A story in the New York Times on Tuesday quoted unnamed Western analysts as saying that senior members of the Haqqani family – including brothers and children of patriarch Jalaluddin Haqqani – had been spotted recently in Islamabad. Given that Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was found and killed by U.S. forces in May in a nearby resort for retired military, Abbotabad, a senior Haqqani presence in the Pakistani capital would suggest that the Pakistani government is actively aiding the enemies of the United States while accepting billions in U.S. military and economic aid.

Charges that Pakistan’s intelligence services, the ISI, were working with the Haqqani network first surfaced publicly in September when outgoing chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullin, told Congress that the Taliban leadership known as the Quetta Shura and the Haqqanis “operate from Pakistan with impunity… attacking Afghan troops and civilians as well as U.S. soldiers”. Mullin went on to call the Haqqani network “a strategic arm” of the ISI.

The Obama administration subsequently tried a softer approach. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton led a high-profile inter- agency delegation to Pakistan last month which urged Pakistani officials to cooperate with the U.S. in reining in the Haqqanis and bringing them to the negotiating table. That visit preceded last weekend’s suicide bombing.

Nasr, who left the State Department earlier this year, said that U.S. relations with “the two countries that are really important – Iran and Pakistan” – had steadily worsened while the U.S. had the best relations with the countries “that matter the least” in terms of Afghanistan’s long-term future.

Iran and the United States are at odds over multiple issues, including Iran’s nuclear programme and support for terrorism.

Anti-U.S. sentiment in Pakistan is at historic highs since the killing of bin Laden. Politician and former cricket star Imran Khan attracted over 100,000 people to a recent rally in Lahore at which he said that Pakistan would not allow itself to be “enslaved” by the United States and attack Pakistani militants at U.S. bidding.

Pakistan and Iran “are very happy to help us leave but they are not necessarily going to support our vision for Afghanistan which includes (a continued U.S. military) footprint,” Nasr told the Wilson Center audience.

U.S. officials have spoken of leaving 20,000-25,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan beyond 2014 to shore up the Afghan government and continue counter-terrorism operations against Al-Qaeda and its Pakistani allies. However, the appetite for the war has waned as U.S. casualties rise beyond 1,800 killed and 15,000 wounded.

Kissinger, who served during Republican administrations that first widened the Vietnam War and then ended it through a peace deal that swiftly crumbled in a communist victory, warned against treating the Afghan conflict as a partisan issue.

“What this country really needs is a reconciliation at home,” he said, speaking of the United States. “The national interest of the U.S. doesn’t change” with every election.

 
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