The Afghanistan conundrum
17 Jun 2019|

In January 2018, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani publicly admitted that without American support, his government and the Afghan National Army couldn’t last very long. That remains the case today: the government is in disarray and the ANA is barely holding out against the Taliban-led insurgency.

Yet US President Donald Trump understandably wants to disentangle America, if possible through a political settlement, from what has become an unwinnable war. As such, the Taliban and their supporters have no compelling reason to let the Afghan government and the United States off the hook easily. And given the complex web of conflicting interests in Afghanistan, separate US and Russian efforts to reach an enduring settlement may not succeed.

Afghanistan’s problem is not primarily a military one. Despite the ANA’s heavy losses (more than 45,000 personnel since mid-2014) and increased insecurity in the country, the army has managed to prevent the Taliban from taking over any major city on a lasting basis. US funding of the ANA to the tune of some US$4 billion per year, together with allied operational assistance, has been crucial in this regard.

Rather, the worsening security situation mostly reflects political and regional factors. For starters, Afghanistan has lacked the leadership it has needed ever since the US-led intervention began, initially under the post-Taliban administration of President Hamid Karzai (2001–2014) and then under Ghani’s national unity government.

The West had hoped that these leaders would strive to nurture national unity and seek to institutionalise politics instead of personalising power in the country. Instead, the traditional practice of divide and rule—along ethnic, tribal, linguistic and cultural lines, and also involving corruption and maladministration—has prevailed. Behind a fig leaf of sham democracy, Afghanistan’s leaders have focused on building personal power and influence at the expense of the national interest.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, Afghan governments since 2001 have been weak and almost entirely dependent on US and allied support. As a result, Afghanistan has been vulnerable to predatory behaviour by its neighbours—Pakistan in particular—and to regional rivalries and great-power competition.

The Afghanistan conflict is now deeply entangled with the India–Pakistan dispute, the Iran–Saudi Arabia rivalry, the Pakistan–Saudi Arabia strategic partnership, US–Iran hostilities, the Pakistan–China friendship, the periodic India–China border tensions, US–India camaraderie and US–Russia competition. Afghanistan has become a zone of conflict in a region of them, each one posing yet another obstacle to a political settlement.

Recent US efforts at reaching a political settlement have been unsuccessful. The US special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation, the Afghan–American Zalmay Khalilzad, who began his peacemaking mission last September, has made little or no progress. Khalilzad has repeatedly claimed progress; in reality, he is struggling to make headway through the Afghan and regional political thicket.

Because of his own controversial involvement in Afghanistan for more than three decades as a self-declared US neoconservative, Khalilzad faces the mistrust of many Afghan leaders, including Ghani, and of governments in the region. He has excluded Iran, one of Afghanistan’s influential neighbours, from his consultation process. He is also viewed with suspicion in Islamabad and Moscow, given his past anti-Pakistan views and criticism of Russia’s regional ambitions.

The only concession that Khalilzad has thus far obtained from the Taliban—after meeting its representatives several times in Qatar’s capital Doha—is that the group has agreed not to allow Afghan territory to be used for hostile action against the US and its allies. But that pledge is conditional on the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Afghanistan. And Khalilzad has been unable to persuade the Taliban to recognise the Afghan government as anything other than a US puppet and to enter direct negotiations with it.

Meanwhile, Russia has pursued its own peacemaking initiatives for Afghanistan, hosting several multilateral meetings in Moscow since late 2018. Participants have included Taliban representatives, Afghan dignitaries (led by Karzai, who now criticises the US for failing to bring stability and security to Afghanistan), the country’s immediate neighbours and India.

The Ghani administration had viewed these Moscow meetings as contrary to its alliance with the US, but nonetheless found it expedient to permit Afghanistan’s ambassador to Russia to attend the most recent gathering in late May. But with the Taliban refusing to agree to a ceasefire, let alone settle other substantive issues, this meeting also produced no tangible results.

Should US and Russian efforts fail to produce a lasting political settlement in Afghanistan, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council may need to reach a consensus among themselves and then implement a resolution based on Chapter VII of the UN Charter, concerning threats to international peace. The goal would be to prompt Afghanistan’s neighbours to cease proxy involvement in the country in support of rival interests; to facilitate the orderly withdrawal of US and allied forces from the country; and to guarantee Afghanistan’s geopolitical neutrality, from which the country benefited before its current troubles began with the invasion of the Soviet Union 40 years ago.

At that point, sufficient help and pressure will be needed to move Afghanistan’s leaders towards achieving a national consensus for their own sake and that of the country. Unfortunately, this may not come soon enough for Afghanistan’s suffering people.