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Stalemate Looms in Afghanistan

Interviewee: Stephen D. Biddle, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Defense Policy, Professor of Political Science and International Affairs, George Washington University
January 14, 2013


With President Obama recently signaling that U.S. goals of setting back al-Qaeda have largely been met, CFR's Stephen Biddle says that all signs suggest that the United States will not be keeping large numbers of forces in Afghanistan for much longer. Biddle says that "we are looking at a situation where the war is very likely to be stalemated with no formula ending it." He warns against rushing negotiations with the Taliban, lest the so-called Northern Alliance forces declare a civil war, not unlike the disastrous one that ravaged the country in the 1990s. For Biddle, it is crucial for all parties to be involved in negotiations and for the process to proceed slowly enough "to avoid having the country split." It is this possibility that "makes everybody involved in the region more nervous as the United States talks about hastening its withdrawal," he says.

When President Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai met last Friday at the White House, Obama seemed to indicate that the United States is pulling its remaining forces out of Afghanistan sooner than some people had anticipated. What's your takeaway from that meeting? And where do we currently stand in the Afghan War?

Some key decisions still haven't been made, such as what the nature of the U.S. posture after 2014 will be and what the nature of any agreement with the Afghan government governing its behavior will be. The indications that are floating around mostly suggest that Obama thinks that the vital U.S. national interests in Afghanistan have either been met or are on the verge of being met substantially. Just how much that disinvestment will be, we don't know yet. But it certainly looks like the decisions on force levels will be toward the lower end of what most people have been talking about.

From what you know, are the Afghan troops capable of defending their country against the Taliban successfully without significant U.S. forces?

As long as the money keeps flowing, there is some reason to believe that the government will not collapse. Now that is a pretty minimal standard, and it's not a standard that can bring the war to an actual end. Part of the problem is the focus has tended to be on getting to 2014 and getting U.S. troops out, or at least most of them. There has been a lot less focus on how you get from there to realizing our interests, and that remains mostly an open question after the meeting between the two presidents.

Whether Congress keeps funding levels high is a tough question now given the contentious budget talks here in the United States, isn't it?

I think in the near term it is very likely that Congress will continue funding Afghansitan, in part because it is much cheaper to fund Afghans than to have U.S. troops there doing the fighting. The issue is what happens later on if the war stalemates and pressure gradually mounts. I think the tendency is often to shave appropriations by a little bit every year. That gets you into a situation where the money gets ratcheted down over time.

What I noticed in the press conference was that the president kept talking about how the United States had won the war against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan as if we weren't really fighting the Taliban. Is that the administration's way of justifying a U.S. departure—by saying there's no longer a significant al-Qaeda presence?

"[Obama has] always believed that the only reason to be in Afghanistan is al-Qaeda. And of course the problem there is that al Qaeda has mostly been in Pakistan."

This is part and parcel of the dilemma the administration has always faced in Afghanistan. From the beginning of his first term, Obama believed that the U.S. goal there is not building an Afghan state for the sake of building an Afghan state, or defeating the Taliban for the sake of beating the Taliban. He's always believed that the only reason to be in Afghanistan is al-Qaeda. And of course the problem there is that al-Qaeda has mostly been in Pakistan. That led to a debate very early on between the vice president and people aligned with him, who asked why the United States was messing around with the counterinsurgency in Afghanistan if the real problem is al-Qaeda and counterterrorism. On the other side were the Defense Department and the U.S. Mission in Afghanistan, which argued that the best way to prevent al Qaeda's resurgence is by building up the Afghan state, at least to some degree, and by defeating the Taliban. The first time the administration grappled with this issue, the solution that they came up with was, "Okay. We will wage counterinsurgency in Afghanistan as a means to the end of weakening al-Qaeda." They argued that stability in Afghanistan was not an end in and of itself. It's just a tool. Since that time, the drone campaign coupled with al-Qaeda's political problems being left behind in the Arab Spring, at least in the early stages, have led some within the administration to argue that the direct conflict with al-Qaeda is being won. That in turn, I think, encouraged the president, especially after Osama bin Laden died in 2011, to conclude that the real goal was being met.

So it's quite possible that we'll be leaving soon and Afghanistan will still be a mess?

That is a distinct possibility. But you can make a case that if in fact the primary U.S. national security interests in the region really is terrorism against the United States, then it is no longer worth investing huge numbers of American dollars and lives in the region once that threat is adequately diminished. I've argued ever since the Obama administration came into office that Afghanistan was a close call and that we shouldn't be spending the money there as long as you're making that decision on the basis of a full accounting of the costs and the benefits. I'm a little nervous in the current situation because some of the things the president is saying at the moment tend to imply that the war is going to end and we will have achieved success by virtue of our departure. For example, there was a quote in the press conference where the president said, "Afghanistan will have full responsibility for their security and this war will come to a responsible end [after 2014]." But our getting out does not end the war.

Talk a bit about these so-called peace negotiations. There is some indication that Pakistan is taking a more lively interest in this process.

"Our getting out does not end the war."

The negotiations have been stalled for months. One reason is that the United States has been rather reluctant to make significant concessions and the Taliban has been very reluctant to negotiate directly with the Afghan government. The Taliban was probably looking forward to a post-war Afghanistan in which they would compete politically with Karzai's legacy, whatever that turns out to be, and wanted to improve its post-war political fortunes, in part by labeling Karzai's government and thus its successors as puppets. One of the ways they did that is by refusing to negotiate with them and insisting that they negotiate only with the United States, thereby implying that the Americans are the only people who matter.

But there is no indication yet that Pakistan is willing to talk with the Afghan government?

There have been some indicators lately that the Pakistanis, the Taliban, and the Afghans have been more willing to talk with each other. Part of what may be going on is that everybody involved is probably reading the tea leaves in Washington and concluding that the United States is disengaging. Although it has always been U.S. policy that negotiations should be Afghan-led, one could read some of the things that have been said recently as an indication that the United States was not going to pressure the Afghan government as aggressively in respect to U.S. interests in any settlement, and that we are willing to accept less in a deal, thus giving Karzai more running room.

Are you pessimistic about the future of Afghanistan?

"A rush to a settlement could very well end up overwhelming the capacity of Afghanistan's political system to adjudicate disputes, and you could end up with a North-South civil war that would look not a whole lot different from the 1990s."

We are looking at a situation where the war is very likely to be stalemated with no formula for ending it. I am concerned that that stalemate might not be sustainable. If we try to accelerate negotiations as a means of getting out from under a stalemated war that we can't bring to an end, there are many ways in which if we are not very careful, accelerated negotiations could lead to a much, much worse outcome than a stalemated war. The political process within Afghanistan at the moment involves a variety of political actors in the country's north, known popularly as the Northern Alliance, who are very hostile to the Taliban and are very uncomfortable about the idea of negotiated settlements with them if they involve compromises. They've been suggesting, quite vocally for some time now, that they would wage civil war rather than accept a variety of plausible settlement terms. I have long felt that the only viable way out of this conflict is some kind of negotiated settlement. We are not going to destroy the Taliban; we are not going to render them militarily impotent—not given the decisions that were made a long time ago. But there are good ways to go about a settlement and bad ways to go about a settlement. And a rush to a settlement could very well end up overwhelming the capacity of Afghanistan's political system to adjudicate disputes, and you could end up with a North-South civil war that would look not a whole lot different from the 1990s.

The right way to conduct talks would be gradually and in a way that involves participation by all of the factions within Afghanistan that have enough invested in this that they might be willing to engage in violence to prevent a deal they cannot live with. Whether or not this process is going to move deliberately enough and in an inclusive enough way to avoid having the country split makes everybody involved in the region more nervous as the United States talks about hastening its withdrawal.

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