Afghanistan: Does Anyone Want the Burden?

October 15, 2010, Commentary No.291

It is no secret that a lot of countries think they have interests in who governs Afghanistan. And, over the past thirty years, a lot of countries have been sending troops or military hardware or a lot of money in order to get the kind of government in Afghanistan they prefer.

It is not hard to show that the degree to which outsider countries have in fact gotten their way is very limited. And the prospects don’t look good for the outsiders. There is an increasing sense among outsiders that perhaps they should reduce their active involvement. Intrusion creates a burden that doesn’t seem to have too many rewards.

The Soviet Union was burned badly in the 1980s and finally withdrew its troops completely. The president they thought they were sustaining was hanged publicly by a grateful nation. The mujahideen that the United States supported in their resistance to Soviet intervention showed their gratitude by breeding and supporting a movement, al-Qaeda, which has ever since devoted its energies to a jihad against the United States and all those whom al-Qaeda considers allies of the United States.

The Afghan civil war, which has had more than two sides, has continued unceasingly during all this time. One major force, called the Taliban, has had its ups and downs during these wars. Currently, they seem to be on a considerable upswing again. Since almost all the outsiders, except Pakistan, endlessly repeat their negative views about the Taliban, the ability of the Taliban to persist and to gain ground within has led to a lot of private rethinking among all concerned outside countries. The question “should we continue to be involved?” is on the agenda everywhere.

The neighbors to the north and west – Uzbekistan, Tadjikistan, Russia (although it has no direct border), and Iran – all are concerned. They do not want a government dominated by militant, largely Pashtun, Taliban in power. They fear, probably correctly, that it would oppress in various ways the zones in the north and west which are ethnically tied to their countries. But none of these neighbors seems ready to send in troops. All therefore favor some intra-Afghan political negotiations that would end up with some protection of the zones in the north and the west.

The United States currently has a large number of troops in Afghanistan. It is theoretically committed to begin a withdrawal of such troops by July 2011. In theory too, the United States government is hoping for a defeat, or at least a taming, of the Taliban forces, and a strengthening of the official Afghan army under the authority of the formally legal government presided over by President Hamid Karzai.

U.S. troops are assisted by a NATO force from several NATO countries. If the United States is waiting until mid-2011 to draw down troops, most of the NATO countries are anxious to get out sooner, or to announce now the certainty of their eventual withdrawal.

In the case of the United States, withdrawal presents an internal U.S. political question. President Obama is weighing whether he will lose more support by withdrawing troops or by not withdrawing troops. Public opinion polls point to the steadily increasing number of voters who are tired of what they see as an unwinnable war in a faraway country. My prediction is that the isolationist thrust is winning over the interventionist thrust in U.S. politics.

That leaves two other outsiders – Pakistan and India. These two countries are of course locked in a long ongoing political (and often military) struggle with each other. And each regards the situation in Afghanistan primarily in terms of its implications for their struggle.

Pakistan, via the army’s intelligence service, the ISI, has supported the Taliban over the whole period. These days, they tend to deny this because it exasperates the United States, but no one is fooled. Pakistan thinks it can control the Afghan Taliban and that a re-established Taliban government in Kabul would be a bulwark against India.

The Indian government has, for the last decade, been an active supporter of the Karzai regime, seeing it as a way to defang Pakistani influence in the country and, over the long run, help create the infrastructure needed to obtain energy resources from Iran and Russia.

Both India and Pakistan may be reconsidering their options. There are at least some Indian government analysts who think that, by withdrawing and turning over Afghanistan to the Pakistanis, they would be feeding Pakistan a poison pill that would sap Pakistan’s energy and military resources. These analysts are counting on the redoubtable independence of the Afghans, especially the Pashtuns, thinking they would no more tolerate Pakistani control than Soviet or United States control.

And what about Pakistan? There are not only Afghan Taliban but, somewhat separately, Pakistani Taliban. While the ISI may appreciate and support those in Afghanistan, they are scarcely enthusiastic about the local variety. Dealing with Pakistani Taliban may do more to distract Pakistan from dealing with India than anything else. Withdrawing from too much involvement in Afghanistan may reduce the internal tensions somewhat.

So, one possible outcome of the ongoing civil wars in Afghanistan is that, within five years or so, everyone may be tired of the burden of involvement and just leave the Afghans alone – “to stew in their own pot,” to use a popular phrase.

What would such an Afghanistan look like? It’s very hard to know. It could look ugly, with the infliction on all Afghans of the least palatable versions of shar’ia law. Or it may surprise us all with the kind of relative live-and-let-live ambiance that Afghanistan has had at some moments of its history. In any case, will the rest of the world care? The next five to ten years is going to be a terrible time economically and politically everywhere. There may be no time or energy to worry about Afghanistan.