Après nous, le déluge
In the wake of the US soldier civilian shooting in Kandahar, many notable American pundits have called for an accelerated pullout of their troops in anticipation of reprisals or worse, a descent into full-fledged war with the local community. But if any lessons are to be gleaned from the failures of imperialists of yore, whose visions of world domination began to fade after drawn-out battles lost in Afghanistan, a premature withdrawal is precisely the move that America must avert at all cost.
Experts have drawn parallels with America’s misadventure in Vietnam, and yet, the explosive potential of a mission left unaccomplished in Afghanistan would cause shockwaves that risk extending well beyond the region. A thorough review of tried, tested and failed military strategies must be undertaken without delay and the US must shift its attention toward repairing some of the damage caused by its hubris and ensuring that it leaves behind a sustainable stability.
In the immediate aftermath of the massacre in Kandahar of 16 innocent Afghans, which US Staff Sgt Robert Bales has been charged with carrying out, there was a measure of consensus in the power circles of Kabul that the swell of anti-American sentiment had to be quelled and community leaders had to be persuaded to call for “restraint” rather than “revenge” in order to limit the fallout from the incident. However, in the days following the Kandahar carnage—which occurred a week after US officers’ burning of Quran copies at Bagram base north of Kabul—two vastly divergent narratives emerged.
‘Punishment of the Americans’
On 16 March, Afghan President Hamid Karzai met with the families of the victims to hear their eye-witness accounts of the tragedy. Despite US military statements that Staff Sgt Bales had acted alone, nearly all of them insisted that more than one soldier was involved in the massacre. Reports that the US soldier was promptly flown to America, along with the US media’s one-sided and casuistic coverage of the story, have sparked nationwide outrage. The initial, rather subdued Afghan reaction has now given way to unmitigated ire as Afghans across the board are questioning the larger issues of the legitimacy of President Karzai’s government and America’s intentions in Afghanistan.
The brother of one of the victims pleaded with Karzai: “I want no compensation, from no one. I don’t want Hajj, I don’t want money, I don’t want a villa in Aino Mina [a posh neighborhood in Kandahar city], I just want the punishment of the Americans. I want it, I want it, I want it. And I have laid down my own head in god’s will. And if that is not possible, God be with you, I am leaving right now.”
Throughout the past decade, a series of patently illogical US actions, for which explanations were never given, have given rise to a myriad of conspiracy theories among Afghans. This instance is no exception. On the higher echelons, the thinking is that the massacre may have been the work of rogue elements within the US structure who want to accelerate the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. But there are others who are of the persuasion that this was planned by the American intelligence apparatus in a bid to prolong their presence in Afghanistan, as a vantage position from which they can keep Iran’s growing regional influence in check. The latter surmise that the incident was staged in order to provoke Afghans into retaliating, and give US troops a reason to stay beyond the 2014 withdrawal deadline.
In October 2001, as US and coalition forces began bombarding Taliban centers in Afghanistan, the then US President George W. Bush assured the Afghans that in exchange for exacting revenge with Al Qaida and carrying on Washington’s “war against terror” on Afghan territory, America would undertake an extensive “nation building” endeavor – in its broadest sense – in Afghanistan.
While it cannot be denied that a capacity for progress in institution-building has been achieved, as well as the restoration of some freedoms, especially for women, by this stage US$3 trillion in international aid spent over a decade in Afghanistan should nonetheless have yielded more solid foundations for stability. Much of the rhetoric about democracy, human rights and rule of law remain elusive, mainly because the United States, from the outset, adopted a strategy of stability über alles, and brought back into power the very personalities who had caused the civil war (1992-96) and the rise of the Taliban.
Après Nous, le Deluge
There is an intrinsic flaw in the logic behind setting a date for military withdrawal from Afghanistan before commencing negotiations for a political settlement with insurgents. It forces Karzai to accept the Taliban, submit to whatever concessions they demand, and share power with them. And, it tells the people of Afghanistan: “Après nous, le deluge!”
In effect, the issue of US troop withdrawal in 2014 and America’s sudden shift in policy from fighting the Taliban to making peace with them has heightened tensions in Afghanistan. The Afghan economy continues, for the most part, to be dependent on foreign aid. The capability of the Afghan National Security Forces is still a long way from replacing NATO. Political polarization is increasing and the Taliban, as well as other armed insurgent groups are lying in wait, ready to fill the void that a NATO withdrawal will create. This is to say nothing of neighboring Pakistan and Iran, both primed to foment further unrest in their ongoing contest for regional influence. This atmosphere of uncertainty has exacerbated corruption in state institutions, and a massive brain drain is underway as the educated youth seek a better future in Western countries.
The Road to Perdition
In an Al Jazeera English interview on 24 March, former British foreign secretary David Miliband stressed upon the importance of reaching an all-inclusive political solution: “Every person in the military in Afghanistan will tell you, there is not a military solution. There never is in a counterinsurgency. There’s only a political solution. It’s the political solution, all the tribes in, Al Qaida out, the neighbors respecting the independence of Afghanistan and knowing it will not be a client state of any neighbor, that is the only road to a political settlement that can make a military withdrawal possible.” A tall order for a highly complex domestic and regional situation, given the international community’s persistent political miscalculations in Afghanistan and especially now, as NATO states are working against a self-imposed military disengagement deadline.
To be sure, no war against an insurgency can be won by military strategy alone, and a political solution is primordial. But even the illiterate Afghans know that the announcement of a deadline for military withdrawal prior to the start of negotiations sabotages a fair settlement. Moreover, the effectiveness of an exit strategy that is driven by upcoming US elections and ill-informed domestic public opinion must be seriously questioned. It is not only counterproductive, but it exposes the lack of genuine intentions for bringing sustainable peace to Afghanistan. Lastly, in the preparatory weeks ahead of NATO’s Chicago Conference on Afghanistan Security, the question that should be posed is: Have Washington and other NATO states devised a plan in the high likelihood that – after a reckless US-led NATO withdrawal – Afghanistan returns to chaos and becomes once again a haven for international terrorism?