On Friday, January 17th, a team of suicide bombers attacked the La Taverna du Liban, a restaurant popular with Westerners and members of the Afghan government in Kabul. The Afghan Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, saying they were targeting foreigners, ostensibly in revenge for an airstrike in Parwan that allegedly killed 17 Afghan civilians (NATO says only two were killed). The attack killed 21, both Afghans and internationals, including the country representative for the International Monetary Fund and four United Nations employees.
The bombing comes at a sensitive time for the Western mission in Afghanistan. Twelve years after its invasion to topple the Taliban, the United States and its NATO allies are well into the process of extricating the bulk of their combat presence from the country. While President Obama publicly celebrates the success of Operation Enduring Freedom in curtailing Al Qaeda’s ability to attack Western targets, the violence in Kabul underscores the lethal effectiveness of the active insurgency still underway in much of the country.
The ongoing fight also underscores the recent difficulties between NATO and Afghan President Hamid Karzai over the latter’s delay in signing the Bilateral Security Agreement that would legitimize the presence of foreign forces in the country after 2014. President Karzai has delayed and offered several reasons and conditions for his signature, none of which have endeared him to the Obama administration or its military planners in charge of timetables and logistics for the withdrawal. Some US tactics, like night raids and airstrikes, are often criticized by the Afghan population, and are often cited by President Karzai in his critiques of US policy.
[quote]Even with a robust training program and a counterterror presence, the Afghan Taliban will still be able to exercise de facto authority in many provinces[/quote]
For those forecasting events over the next year, one of two likely scenarios will prevail. One, that a BSA is signed, leaving a modest US presence, focused on counterterrorism and training Afghan National Security Forces, and, second, the much dreaded “zero option.” Neither scenario is ideal. Even with a robust training program and a counterterror presence, the Afghan Taliban will still be able to exercise de facto authority in many provinces. Criminal elements, especially those involved in the narcotics trade, will continue to profit from illicit activities, much as they have in past years, even with the larger Western presence.
A “zero option” would be worse, representing a rapid Western withdrawal, with the possibility of a pullback in financial assistance. Without money, it is very likely that Afghan National Security Forces would not be able to sustain their fight. Additionally, the US and NATO forces are an important source of intelligence for anti-Taliban operations.
Those forecasting Afghanistan’s future must reckon with two related factors: the staying power of US focus on Afghanistan is dependent on public opinion and Congressional patience, both of which have been exhausted in the twelve-year effort. Afghanistan is, at present, the least popular war in American history, according to polling by CNN. A cash-strapped US, whose Congress is loath to raise new revenue to fund emergency unemployment benefits, is unlikely to put in much effort or attention to funding a lamented war in Afghanistan, even as the violence against innocent civilians (Afghans and internationals) worsens.
President Karzai should be aware, as numerous administration officials have made clear, that the zero option is not a bluff. If the revelations in former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ memoirs are to be believed, Obama’s belief in the mission from 2009-2010 declined over time, and his trust in President Karzai similarly faltered. According to recent reporting by the Wall Street Journal, there is currently an internal Obama administration debate over the appropriate size of the residual force, with Vice President Joe Biden, who was initially skeptical of the surge, arguing for a drastically smaller force.
Even if such headlines are meant to concentrate Karzai’s mind on the precariousness of his position, these debates obscure a more profound dilemma. Everything about the present US attitude suggests it will no longer be the largest player in the region, even if Al Qaeda is able to reconstitute a larger presence, as its geographical diffusion dictates that the US casts a wider net. Rather, the regional players are now presented with a scenario where the decisions they take will have critical importance. Indications from a series of rotating trilateral meetings, involving variously the Russians, Chinese, Indians, and Pakistanis, suggest that they are sounding each other out on areas of mutual interest, such as counterterrorism and regional trade. Iran, feelings its way through an uneasy detente with the US and European Union by way of negotiations over its nuclear program, is also looking to the future, and will be keen to guard its interests in western Afghanistan.
The question remains whether these leaders have appreciated the folly of playing double games which have bedeviled so much of the region’s history. No winning scenario is achievable if the script from the early 1990s is followed. Rather, an inclusive regional approach, reinforced by the pursuit of reconciliation process with those Taliban who are still willing to talk peace, seems to be the avenue of last resort. Such a regional strategy would enshrine non-interference in Afghanistan’s internal affairs, and set the stage for long-overdue cooperation on trade and economic issues. The current peace process is stalled, but by no means irredeemable. Such a process, if it can maintain the active participation of all of Afghanistan’s neighbors, might even help retain Western and, most important, US interest in the region. A military solution for the problems plaguing Afghanistan has been tried without success. A scenario that embraces a political solution, with some creative diplomacy from Afghanistan’s neighbors is now necessary more than ever as Washington eyes the exit. Absent an atmosphere of cooperation in the region, advocates for sustained US interest in the region will find themselves low on the priority list. In that future, not only Afghanistan, but the entire region will suffer the consequences.
Neil Bhatiya is a Policy Associate at The Century Foundation, a progressive non-partisan think tank based in New York City