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Déjà Vu All Over Again in Afghanistan

I am not an optimist when it comes to Afghanistan. The United States lost the Afghan war the second President Obama issued a public timeline for withdrawal and when diplomats offered to negotiate with the Taliban. Officials endorsing such timelines—too often out of political perspicacity rather than military wisdom—are culpable in setting the stage for defeat. Momentum matters in Afghanistan more than spin, as Afghans have never lost a war: they simply defect to the winning side.

The White House may believe its spin, but no one in Afghanistan does. Whereas the Taliban once embraced the narrative of the First Anglo-Afghan War, describing Mullah Omar as Dost Muhammad and Hamid Karzai as Shah Shujah, with the implication that ISAF forces would play the role of the British heading into a disastrous retreat, the historical allusions have changed in recent months as Afghans filter events through the living memory of the Soviet withdrawal. Hence, Hamid Karzai has become Najibullah in the current Afghan narrative. Najibullah, of course, was the last Communist leader of Afghanistan. True, Najibullah managed to hold onto power for three years following the Soviet withdrawal, but he fell as soon as the rubles—about $3 billion per year—dried up. Afghans recognize that most of the money promised in the past years’ series of international donor conferences will never get delivered.

Further, when the World Bank estimates the foreign assistance that Afghanistan will require to stay afloat, they too often assume that the Afghan mining industry will be far more advanced than reality will dictate. In the past year, real estate prices have dropped 20 percent in Afghanistan as Afghans recognize that the long-term prospects for rule of law are dim.

When the Afghan civil war resumes—and with neighbors like Iran and Pakistan, it will—it will be bloody. If in 1989, the Soviets left Najibullah behind to face the so-called Peshawar-7, the Americans and ISAF appear prepared to leave the country behind with an even greater array of warlords or, as the State Department prefers to say, regional power-brokers. The ill-conceived strategy to prop up local militias will only exacerbate the conflict to come.

Negotiations with the Taliban only make things worse. Let’s forget that the State Department has never conducted a lessons-learned exercise to explain why their previous round of negotiations with the Taliban—between 1995 and 2000—failed so precipitously or why they should expect different results now, when negotiating with many of the same figures.

Those who propose a soft partition, ceding predominantly Pushtun southern Afghanistan to the Taliban, forget that such a system has been tried and failed. After the Taliban consolidated control over southern Afghanistan in 1994, they had agreed not to enter Herat, an overwhelmingly Persian city, but did anyhow the following year. Ditto their entry into Kabul in 1996, against the backdrop of UN power-sharing talks. The only thing the Taliban were interested in sharing, it turned out, was their idea of God’s wrath upon anyone who did not share their twisted interpretations of Islam and culture. 

From early in the Soviet occupation through the Red Army’s withdrawal a quarter century ago, the United Nations worked to broker a withdrawal. Diego Cordovez, Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim’s special representative, credited the persistence of the United Nations (rather than the arming of the Mujahedin) with achieving the Soviet withdrawal. Again, it’s déjà vu. In 2011 and 2012, respectively, the International Crisis Group and the RAND Corporation published reports calling for UN-led mediation as, in the words of David Cortright, director of policy studies at Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, “The U.N. is perhaps the only organization that is able to garner the political clout needed to successfully achieve a peace settlement.” This, of course, is nonsense. It may be dogma for the conflict resolution community, but foisting off responsibility for Afghanistan to UN officials will simply lead to a repeat of the bloodshed that swept over Afghanistan with renewed vigor in 1992.

The United States went into Afghanistan in 2001 to help the Afghan government fill a vacuum in which terrorism thrived, and to help Afghanistan rebuild a military that could monopolize the use of force within its borders. That mission is not yet complete. Perhaps politicians and diplomats will still push forward with withdrawal. As they do so, however, they should recognize that they are not leaving in victory, but rather condemning Afghans to repeat the past.