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Ending the Afghan War

Interviewee: Stephen D. Biddle, Roger Hertog Senior Fellow for Defense Policy, CFR
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
March 16, 2012

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The recent killing of at least sixteen Afghan villagers allegedly by a U.S. soldier has prompted condemnation from Afghan President Hamid Karzai (NYT), who has called for all foreign troops to be confined to regular bases, further complicating the international mission in Afghanistan. While such setbacks may not alter the "underlying strategic calculus of the war," says CFR Senior Fellow Stephen Biddle, they will further strain the relationship between Presidents Barack Obama and Karzai, which may eventually reach a breaking point. On the Taliban's announcement that it is suspending the preliminary peace talks with the United States, Biddle says it's a tactical move designed to put some increased pressure on Washington to "sweeten the negotiations." Biddle adds that the only solution to end the Afghan war is through a negotiated settlement.

How do you analyze these latest developments?

They are setbacks. There have been quite a few of those lately, but I don't think they change the underlying strategic calculus of the war in any important way. If historians look back at this twenty years from now and decide that this was an important moment, it won't be because anything fundamental about the military situation on the ground or the basic politics of the war had changed. But it might affect personal reactions by key individual leaders, especially President Hamid Karzai and President Barack Obama.

Both President Karzai and President Obama have been very frustrated with each other over the last couple of years, and over time, that builds. So far, it's never crossed the limits of either man's tolerance, but it has gotten close on lots of occasions, and it's plausible to think that it eventually might, with respect to President Karzai's announcement of his desire to have U.S. troops to be restricted to bases, for example.

What is President Obama's view of the Afghan war today?

President Obama is ambivalent about the war for understandable reasons. He believes, and I agree with him on this, that the United States has a real but limited interest and stakes in Afghanistan. When you have a real interest, you want to do something about it. This is not World War II and Nazi Germany all over again. The natural instinct of most people is to pursue real but limited ends. The problem which has led to so much of the ambivalence on the part of Obama and the White House has been that you can't do that for Afghanistan.

So what are the options then?

You can overspend and pay more than the stake is worth but then have a reasonable chance of securing it. Certainly the president believes that the military, especially since General Stanley A. McChrystal [former top commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan] took command, has been proposing that. Or you can under-spend what the stake is worth, and get nothing at all.

Setting a withdrawal date and publicizing it gives huge incentives to accelerate corruption, and that corruption is a profound threat to the campaign and the misgovernance that goes along with it.

When you try to do something to hit a reasonable centrism, you end up with a big risk of a more expensive version of nothing. When Obama took office, he was committed to reinforcement; whether he felt deeply about the Afghan war is hard to say, but he campaigned on the basis of Afghanistan being "the good war" and needing reinforcements. My suspicion is that he was ready to write a blank check to the military to do this job right and get it off his desk, right after he took his office. He had a quick review and then essentially gave the Afghanistan commander, General David McKiernan, what General McKiernan had asked for. The trouble was that General McKiernan had self-censored his troop request and asked for a lot less than what I think he felt he really needed (25,000-30,000), because he felt that was all the market would bear. He was misreading the market badly.

The inadequacy of the McKiernan request became quite apparent when McChrystal took over and when McChrystal then asked for what he thought was actually necessary, the White House felt like they had been whipsawed.

Clearly, President Obama now seems to want to get out of this war. NATO has agreed to end its involvement by the end of 2014 except for some advisers. Is there now a general lack of enthusiasm for this war?

Yes. Clearly, Obama is not enthusiastic about this war. But I think if he were simply fed up with the war in general and just wanted out, there were much faster ways of getting out than the ones he has chosen. What he has been trying to do is to find the middle. The problem is that this kind of middle runs the risk of being a lot more expensive to produce the same result than simply being fed up and getting out.

When the president set the dates for withdrawal--all the "surge" troops out by the end of this summer--several analysts argued that the timetable tells the Taliban they just have to hold fast and eventually they won't have anybody to fight.

There's some truth to that. The most damaging effect of the dates, however, is actually on our allies. It has made it very, very difficult to make headway in improving Afghan governance because what those dates have done is that they've convinced lots of Afghans that the Americans are not, in fact, going to stay as long as necessary, but are going to get out according to the calendar rather than the situation on the ground.

Afghans who are skeptical about their own government read that to mean there's only a minimum amount of time left in order to extract as much money as possible from international aid and from the underlying economy, transport it out of the country to Dubai or someplace else, and create a nice exile for oneself after the government collapses and the Americans leave. Setting a withdrawal date and publicizing it gives huge incentives to accelerate corruption, and that corruption is a profound threat to the campaign and the misgovernance that goes along with it.

How does the Taliban look at the situation?

It's important to look at the problem through the Taliban's eyes rather than simply ours. As long as either the Americans are in the country in large numbers or the Afghan national security force is being funded by foreigners, the Taliban is probably not going to re-conquer the country. It's probably going to be a stalemate. The U.S. Congress may very well pull the plug on the money required to keep the Afghan security force in the field, but it's certainly not going to be sooner than 2014. And it won't be for probably a couple of years after that. What you are really talking about is four, five, or six more years of ongoing warfare, and in the meantime, the Americans have a leadership-targeting campaign that's killing off a significant number of Taliban's leadership cadre.

The problem is that the Taliban don't want to negotiate with Karzai, they want to negotiate with us.

So when you look at this through the Taliban's eyes, maybe they are just fanatics and they will pay any price, and there is no way of destroying them to get a successful outcome. But I think it's not impossible to suppose that the Taliban might be looking at this calculus and asking themselves if there's something they can offer us that looks better than that.

In that case, how do you analyze the latest announcement that they're suspending preliminary peace talks with the United States?

I suspect it's a tactical move that's designed to put some increased pressure on us to sweeten the negotiations. The video of marines urinating on Taliban corpses, the Quran burning, the shooting episode last Sunday in which sixteen Afghans were killed have hurt our cause. Every time something like that happens, a rational negotiator on the other side is going to conclude that their hand just got stronger and their ability to extract concessions just went up.

How important is it for the Karzai government to be in these talks?

If we do not get Karzai to agree, then there is going to be no deal. He is the president of Afghanistan; he can veto anything that we and the Taliban agree to. Karzai and his government ultimately have to make the concessions for the Taliban we're talking about, we cannot. So if Karzai decides that his interests are not being represented in these talks, then they will fail.

The problem is that the Taliban doesn't want to negotiate with Karzai; they want to negotiate with us. They say Karzai is a puppet and he is not the real decision-maker, we are. They are trying to humiliate Karzai and his government by making him look small, because they understand that there's going to be some subsequent political process once a deal is reached. If a deal is reached, they will surely be legalized and they will surely enter the government. They want to set up a situation in which their political prospects are as strong as possible. A good way to do that is to diminish the future opposition, which will be Karzai's legacy, whoever that eventually turns out to be. We need Karzai to agree to what happens. Karzai won't agree to any deal that's reached without him being at the table. The Taliban is trying to keep him away from the table.

So what happens next?

We've talked about the negotiation process. That's one of the two mechanisms the administration has talked about by which they think they can bring about a successful result here, the other being to hand the war off to the Afghans and let them wage it after we go home. It's important to recognize that the second route, handing war to the Afghans and letting them wage it, is no longer viable. All roads now run through negotiations as the only way forward.

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