The Afghanistan war strategy review released December 16 hews to President Barack Obama's pledge of last year and aims to begin "a responsible" drawdown of U.S. troops from the country in July 2011. However, a negotiated settlement in Afghanistan hinges on convincing the Taliban that the United States is not planning to pull out the bulk of is troops next year, says CFR's Stephen Biddle. Biddle notes that because of Obama's pledge last year, many in the region became convinced the United States was ready to go home. "Once the Taliban decides that the 2011 date doesn't mean that the Americans will pack their suitcases and go home, it isn't going to lead them to run up the white flag and surrender," says Biddle, "but it very well may lead them to say, 'Well, let's see what they have to offer us, and let's talk about some kind of a deal.' That, I think, is a road to a settlement." Biddle says the only possible sustainable deal in Afghanistan is one that would be hammered out with the Afghan, U.S., and Pakistani governments, and elements of the Taliban.
Was there any major surprise in the administration's latest war review?
No. People haven't been expecting surprises. The review was expected to say, "So far so good, but it's early," and that's pretty much what it said.
The review says that what it calls "a responsible reduction," can still begin as planned in July 2011. At the time Obama first mentioned this date, some experts, including yourself, expressed some concern. Is that still an issue?
There are plenty of people, especially Republicans, who think it's a bad idea, but it's clear that there will be some reduction in July 2011. The administration is pretty well committed to that. What's uncertain still is how large and how fast a reduction. My sense is that the administration is leaning toward smaller and slower than what they may have thought a year ago, but that there will still be something.
There have been reports in the press about the intelligence community having a more negative view of what's going on, particularly because of Pakistan's relative lack of cooperation. Does the review take into account these kinds of criticisms?
To some extent. But the criticisms need to be put in a context that enables one to make sense of them. Take, for example, the issue of Pakistan, that the National Intelligence Estimate has apparently raised. Just about everybody recognizes the Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan make the effort in Afghanistan harder. But there's an implication in much of this critique that what we really need to do is to bomb them, or have the Pakistani army overrun them. Neither of those is a realistic way forward. The resolution of the Pakistani sanctuary issue, if we're going to get one, it seems to me would be part and parcel of a settlement if we succeed in this war.
If we're going to get out of Afghanistan, an acceptable outcome is going to be through some kind of negotiated deal between the Karzai government, the United States, key Taliban factions, and the Pakistani government. The key element in any settlement that could conceivably be acceptable to us is resolution of the Taliban sanctuary in Pakistan. The Pakistani government would have to accept a settlement as being in its net political interests and decide to use its influence to get its clients to stop using Pakistani territory to stir up violence in Afghanistan and [persuade] those clients that the terms of the deal are in their net interest to the point where they're willing to lay down their arms. Short of a settlement, you can put pressure on the sanctuaries, you can do leadership targeting, among other things, to encourage that leadership to negotiate. The idea that you're somehow going to shut them down so they can no longer send fighters across the borders to Afghanistan strikes me as unrealistic.
If we're going to get out of Afghanistan, an acceptable outcome is going to be through some kind of negotiated deal between the Karzai government, the United States, key Taliban factions, and the Pakistani government.
The review doesn't say much about another crucial issue, the corruption of the Afghan government. That's still a major problem, I suspect.
Oh yes. A report issued by former U.S. Commander Stanley McChrystal famously said (WashPost) that the government's reform was co-equally necessary for success with security improvements. That's still exactly right. Over time, there's been a gradual shift in the way the command has thought about governance reform, from an initial focus on taking an Afghan administration that is presumed to want what Americans want and equipping them with more administrators and more wherewithal to realize that joint ambition, into a conception of governance reform that's focused on reducing predatory activity by malign actors within the Afghan government, because that's not what we want. Success in that effort to reduce malign, predatory misgovernance really is critical, and there have been some key developments in that domain in the last six to eight months. There's been a reorganization in the International Security Assistance Force creating a cell that's directed specifically at this.
There's also the interesting development--substantially underemphasized in public conversation recently--which is the United States blacklisting Watan Risk Management, an Afghan corporation that was involved in providing transportation and security for mostly U.S. military and logistical convoys. Watan was widely believed to be profoundly implicated in a network of corrupt government actors in Kandahar province and has been a recipient of enormous amounts of American military contract money. Much of that contract money was redirected into graft and cronyism in Kandahar.
Obama stressed that this is really a fight against al-Qaeda. It's an odd situation where the American goal is to destroy al-Qaeda, but the fighting is really with the Taliban. Who is our enemy here?'
The administration has always said that the two key security goals in Afghanistan were to prevent the country from becoming a base for attacking us and to prevent the country from becoming a base for destabilizing its neighbors. Both of those are issues with al-Qaeda. The way they [the administration] talk about it tends to emphasize the first problem: Karzai falls, al-Qaeda will return to Afghanistan, and Afghanistan will once again become a base like it was in 2001. Another concern is the fear that if Afghanistan falls, it will destabilize Pakistan, which is where al-Qaeda is currently located, and an al-Qaeda operation in the midst of a Pakistani state collapse could enable al-Qaeda to get its hand s on some part of the Pakistani nuclear arsenal.
Recent reports suggest that there's been some significant progress in the fight in Kandahar province. What is your understanding of that?
Just about everyone agrees that Kandahar province is much safer now than it was a year ago. The issue is not so much over the facts, it's over the inferences one draws from that, and what does that mean for the future. Part of the problem is that stabilizations and counterinsurgency are slow-moving, and warfare in Afghanistan is unusually seasonal in nature. There are just inevitable limits on how much you can really know about the security condition in a part of Afghanistan that was cleared in this past summer. Now we're making observations in the late fall.
The best one can say is, "So far so good," but the real test will come in the spring and the summer, and inevitably the Taliban is going to counterattack to regain control over those areas. The acid test will be not whether the violence goes up in the spring. It absolutely will. The issue is whether those counterattacks succeed or fail. Counterattacking and counterinsurgency, just like clearance and counterinsurgency, tends to be slow moving. It's not like D-Day, or the German counterattacks against D-Day, when multiple Panzer divisions threw themselves on Allied defenses and the issue is resolved in a few days or a few weeks. These counterattacks will unfold gradually over the course of the spring and summer of next year. That's when we'll know for sure whether we've really established security in these places.
We cannot and should not try to pursue a reconciliation settlement that excludes the Pakistanis. They can blow up any deal that doesn't respect their interests, and stability in the region requires that this solution respect their interests.
That said, there are some events that you could imagine going one way or the other. Take, for example, the introduction of large numbers of foreign troops into Kandahar and its environs. Many predicted for some years that if one were to do that--in a conservative southern city widely viewed as the heartland of the Taliban--it would create an antibody reaction in which the public would reject foreign military presence, and you'd see a huge recruitment spike for the Taliban and widescale violence to oppose foreign occupation. None of those things have happened. The problem with this kind of operation is that it's a long road to get to something you could call success, and there are lots of points where you could fail.
On the question of beginning a withdrawal in July 2011, that's going to come at the time of the expected Taliban counterattacks, right?
They picked a time that's right smack in the middle of the fighting season. Unless we're unusually successful in crushing counterattacks with more-than-normal speed, those counterattacks will still be sorting themselves out in July. That's going to make assessment ambiguous and difficult.
The review's rhetoric seems to suggest a modest withdrawal, if any.
That seems to be where the administration has been heading, yes.
Again on Pakistan, do you see any way of breaking this deadlock? Pakistani public opinion is so anti-American that it's difficult to get cooperation.
Certainly anti-Americanism in Pakistan hurts. The key issue is the Pakistani leadership's assessment of their security interests in Afghanistan. The problem is that we appear to be driving toward the construction of a government in Afghanistan that does not explicitly involve the Pakistanis in its creation and construction. If we're going to get a stable outcome, it's going to come through some sort of negotiated settlement that involves the Taliban and Pakistani government. If we do that in a way that persuades the Pakistanis that some sort of compromise gives them guarantees against their worst case--an Afghan government that they don't control and is free to align itself with India--and if the settlement creates a degree of Pakistani confidence that they have guarantees against that happening, my guess is that anti-Americanism in Pakistan won't be a barrier to getting a settlement.
If we fail to do that, even if Pakistanis in the street loved us, I don't think we would get a settlement. It has occasionally been reported that the Taliban is trying to conduct negotiations that don't involve Pakistan. The arrest of [top Taliban military commander] Mullah Baradar, for example, was tied up in this notion that the Pakistanis believed there were negotiations going on that didn't involve them and therefore would not respect their interests. Therefore the Pakistanis had to shut it down, so they arrested one of the key interlocutors.
What that indicates is that we cannot and should not try to pursue a reconciliation settlement that excludes the Pakistanis. They can blow up any deal that doesn't respect their interests, and stability in the region requires that this solution respect their interests.
Is there a realistic chance of a negotiated deal with the Taliban, the Afghan government, Pakistanis, and us?
In the near term, probably not. In the middle to long term, I think there is a reasonable prospect that at least key factions within the Taliban can be persuaded to settle.
And when you say medium, how many years?
This is all the worst kind of crystal ball guess work, but a couple of years, two to three. Part of the problem here is that the announcement of the 2011 deadline has created a belief in much of the region that the United States is going home in late 2011. That has substantially complicated any prospects for near-term settlements, because the Taliban, at a minimum, will wait to see whether that happens. The 2014 date helps in that regard. If we, in fact, don't leave in July 2011 and there's a drawdown that's slow and gradual, the Taliban will observe that. They've clearly been hurt badly by the reinforcements of this summer. If it looks to them like their prognosis is not going to turn for the better for a long time, and if the drone attacks and the Special Forces operations are continuing to kill Taliban leadership at a high rate, you could imagine the Taliban becoming more open to conversation about some kind of settlement deal. And that doesn't mean they're just going to surrender. The deal, if we get it, is going to involve concessions on both sides. Once the Taliban decides that the 2011 date doesn't mean that the Americans will pack their suitcases and go home, it isn't going to lead them to run up the white flag and surrender, but it may very well lead them to say, "Well, let's see what they have to offer us, and let's talk about some kind of a deal." That, I think, is a road to a settlement.