Richard Haass purports to offer a way out of Afghanistan in this week’s Newsweek. In fact, Haass offers little more than fanciful and ultimately counterproductive policy suggestions.
Haass argues that the United States must clearly assess what are its Afghan objectives—a point with which I agree. He believes there are two American goals: “to prevent Al Qaeda from reestablishing a safe haven and to make sure that Afghanistan does not undermine the stability of Pakistan.” Unquestionably, these two goals are the United States’ prime objectives in Afghanistan.
However, the policy prescriptions Haass offers will not achieve either of the goals he outlined. Effectively, Haass believes that the United States should abandon the corrupt, ineffectual Karzai government in favor of power devolved to the provinces, coupled with rapprochement with the Taliban.
Haass arrives at this prescription in an eminently reasonable way. He argues that al-Qaeda and the Taliban are not one in the same—absolutely true. He argues that the two organizations have different goals—true, as well. He argues that there are a very small number of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan—true according to Leon Panetta, DCI. He argues that large troop deployments (over 100,000) intended to kill such a small number (60-100) is ineffective—yes, very true. He argues that the Taliban are predominantly Pastun—true, again. And that this renders the war in Afghanistan, against the Taliban, really an tribal-ethnic civil war—true, to a point.
Where Haass falters, and falters drastically, is his presumption that the war in Afghanistan is static. Haass believes that the United States can change tactics in Afghanistan, to focus on killing al-Qaeda in Pakistan, without causing a significant shift in al-Qaeda from Pakistan to Afghanistan. He believes this because he believes that the United States can convincingly deter the Taliban from harboring al-Qaeda. Remarkably, he believes that the US can do this after allowing a de facto partition of the country, with the Taliban operating what is effectively a Pashtunistan in South and Eastern Afghanistan.
The ability of the United States to affect the deterrent that Haass describes is questionable from both tactical and strategic perspectives. From a tactical perspective, the deterrent would require the United States to develop substantial intelligence among an extraordinarily hostile population—difficult in any environment, more difficult in an environment where you have 1. no US presence; 2. you’ve abandoned what of the civilian population that had assisted you in a 9 year counterinsurgency to their fates at the hands of the kin they turned on to assist you. From a strategic perspective, an effective deterrent would require something more than cruise missile or drone strikes, a presence the American people will not likely support after leaving Afghanistan once. The deterrent might sound good on paper but it will not be effective.
Further, even assuming the United States is able to affect a convincing deterrent, there is little reason to believe that even a co-opted Taliban will be able to prevent al-Qaeda from reestablishing itself in their territory. Even in the late 1990s, when al-Qaeda moved into Afghanistan, it was not apparent that they did so with overt support from the Taliban. The relationship, I think, is better described as parasitic. The Taliban were a weak government, al-Qaeda was cohesive. In that environment, al-Qaeda was able to carve out a fiefdom in Afghanistan, irrespective of Taliban desires.
Finally, while Haass should be commended for his willingness to recognize the differences between al-Qaeda and the Taliban, we should remember that not all militants are created equally—at least vis-à-vis Pakistan. The government of Pakistan describes the world in terms of “good” and “bad” Taliban. Good Taliban are those Taliban that focus on Afghanistan (and Kashmir, but that’s a different matter) and do not harbor Pakistani ambitions. Bad Taliban are those Taliban (and al-Qaeda) that oppose the state of Pakistan. Under the aegis of Bad Taliban fit both al-Qaeda and Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan. A vacuum in Afghanistan, or a weak Taliban controlled space in South and Eastern Afghanistan will likely offer safe haven for these so-called Bad Taliban to launch attacks in Pakistan, contributing to Pakistan’s destabilization and thereby undermining one of the twin goals of the United States in Afghanistan.