One cannot but sympathise with Barack Obama despite the four more years he has just won himself as President of the United States.
Both the wars his country launched in the new millennium — “the war of choice” in Iraq and the “war of necessity” in Afghanistan — have cost trillions of dollars and over 7,500 lives, besides thousands more wounded and tens of thousands suffering from post-conflict trauma. Both wars have gone sour from the American perspective. Iraq has not only not emerged as a model for democracy, either for its own people or for the region as a whole, it has emerged as a dependable ally of Iran and has openly sided with the Assad regime in the ongoing civil war in Syria in which the US and a host of external powers are firmly in the anti-Assad camp. Iraq, under its Shia Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki, is engaged on the Shia side of the sectarian conflict which is now playing havoc in the region, with probable consequences for other parts of the world.
As for Afghanistan, The New York Times admitted in an editorial last month that it was changing its view and advising the Administration to get out of Afghanistan in “not more than a year,” and “as soon as we safely can.” Two more years of sending American troops to die and be wounded is too long, it argued, noting the Afghan army and police would never become an effective counterinsurgency force. The Taliban, far from being defeated, will surely come to occupy many provinces as well as, most likely, official positions in the governing set-up in Kabul.
The twin pillars of the exit policy — reintegration and reconciliation — have not worked. A very small proportion of the insurgents have integrated which is more than offset by the large number of desertions and “green-on-blue” attacks. As for reconciliation, the Taliban have always known that the distant power will not stay engaged forever and that time was on their side. They are the ones who set conditions for even talking about reconciliation. The term “reconciliation” is misleading in the Afghan context. Reconciliation presupposes the existence of two or more parties which must reconcile among themselves. In Afghanistan, clearly defined or structured parties do not exist. Even the Taliban, obviously one “side,” is a fractured movement with several groups, but at least they agree on one leader in the person of Mullah Omar whose decision everyone will accept. But on the other side, there is not even this kind of a party. President Hamid Karzai was elected in his individual capacity, not as head of a political party. Does he have the political authority to reconcile with the Taliban? Even the High Peace Council is a nominated body. In any case, the reconciliation talks were to take place between the Taliban and the Americans who do not represent any segment of the Afghan population.
Obama is a pragmatic leader. He was criticised for prematurely announcing the date for the departure of American troops, but he was right in doing so. His main, and only concern, is with the lives of his troops. From his perspective, America has done more than its share to help the Afghan people achieve stability and prosperity. If the Afghan leaders and Afghanistan’s neighbours will not allow the country to remain peaceful, it cannot be the concern of America. If there is “après nous, le deluge,” certainly America and others cannot be held responsible. It is this decision of Obama that made Afghanistan a non-issue in the presidential election. The rest of the international community wants to fight the Taliban till the last American.
Having won a second term gives more flexibility to Obama. He can decide how many, if any, troops he should leave behind in Afghanistan in four or five camps or bases post-2014. (He did not leave any in Iraq.) The precise function of this force is not clear. Would they want to get involved in the armed unrest, even short of a full-fledged civil war, which might engulf the country following the next election? Would they be stationed to rescue the next President in case he comes under a commando attack? Will they go after the insurgents if the latter make gains in controlling more and more territory? Will they pursue the Taliban on Pakistani soil? Will they be in charge of the drone campaign which is likely to continue and even expand? Since the US has decided to cut its losses and pull out, they might as well not leave any young men and women behind in harm’s way. Obama would not be the first President to do so.
The US ought to ponder over what kind of Afghanistan it will leave behind after its withdrawal. As the NYT editorial points out, even most of its downsized objectives would not have been fulfilled. The Taliban will form part of the government at some stage. Al Qaeda, with whom the Taliban are in cahoots, is supposed to have been decimated but is alive and will probably start kicking post-2014. It is very much active, lethally so, in many other parts of the mainly Islamic world. Nevertheless, President Obama, keen as he is on the US evacuating with dignity, might want to try to promote some kind of stability. The one avenue, which he has not explored so far, is to try and promote a regional pact among Afghanistan and its neighbours not to interfere or intervene in one another’s internal affairs.
Principle of staying out
The Bonn agreement of December 2001 recognised the crucial importance of this principle and called upon the United Nations, in an Annexure, to guarantee non-interference, etc in Afghanistan’s affairs. This provision, for inexplicable reasons, has not received the slightest attention from the international community, including the Secretary-General of the United Nations. The gist of this principle was adequately incorporated in the declaration of the Istanbul conference last year, but not acted upon, in effect abandoned, subsequently. It is not too late to attempt to revive it. All that is needed is for the UN Secretary-General to appoint either a single person or a group of persons, all highly respected internationally, to talk to the regional parties to see whether they would agree to conclude a solemn undertaking not to interfere, etc. The Secretary-General would need the backing of the Security Council which should be forthcoming since it will not cost anything to any country.
It has been argued, with some validity, that the mere signing of a declaration is meaningless without some teeth to enforce it. The “teeth” can be in the form of UN observers with the necessary mandate. The task of the observers will not be to use force to stop interference; that would not be practicable. Rather, it would be in the nature of a complaints mechanism. If any country suspects another of violating its obligations under the pact, it would lodge a complaint, with supporting evidence, with the observers. The country against whom the complaint has been filed must cooperate in the investigations; refusal to cooperate would be tantamount to admission of guilt. A country which refuses to be part of such a pact would also raise suspicions about its intentions. This idea can be further refined during the course of consultations.
No idea, however impractical it may sound, should be abandoned without at least a serious consideration at the hands of those professing concern for Afghanistan’s stability.
(Chinmaya R. Gharekhan, a former Permanent Representative of India
at the United Nations, is a commentator on international affairs.)