Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Leaving With Honor

The almost decade- long American war in Afghanistan has now reached the beginning of the end. All hopes of anything like "victory" have long since vanished, but so have most fears that falling short of victory will jeopardize American national security. The essential remaining questions, then, are what they once were in Vietnam: How fast do we leave? And what do we leave behind? My impression, after a short trip to Afghanistan, is that the United States should leave faster than President Barack Obama appears to want to, but slowly enough to give the Afghans at least a chance to stave off total collapse. You can certainly meet officials here who believe, as Simon Gass, NATO's new senior civilian representative, does, that "we can leave behind a stable platform" by the current 2014 target date for withdrawal. But a U.S. official with considerable experience in Afghanistan offered a much more tentative metaphor: "Can we thread the needle here by 2014 ?" he asked. "Yes, but it will take some luck." Pakistan would have to apply pressure to the sanctuaries where insurgents now shelter, the Afghan army would have to make major strides in professionalism, and "we're going to need more political will expressed by President [Hamid] Karzai." "Any sign of that?" I asked. "No," he said, citing the Afghan president's continuing protection of highly placed criminals and warlords and unwillingness to permit independent political institutions, including the parliament, to flourish. So why bother at all? Why not crate everything up and leave as fast as possible? There are several answers to this question, some quite persuasive. A Taliban conquest of large parts of the country would be a terrible enough fate for the Afghan people, but worse yet would be a collapse into a 1990 s-style civil war, an apocalyptic fear that is widely shared by Afghans as well as internationals. Left on its own, the army is likely to fragment along ethnic lines, thanks in part to Karzai himself, who has permitted the warlords around him to parcel out the most senior military posts to their own loyalists. The Somalization of Afghanistan would be even more dreadful than a Talibanization, and certainly yet more inviting to al Qaeda. A more optimistic account holds that something better is in the offing on the other side of the planned national election in 2014. A new Afghanistan is struggling to be born, one often hears, an Afghanistan of institutions rather than one of tribal and ethnic loyalties. A vibrant private sector is emerging; an unfettered media, in league with civil society groups, is exposing the corruption and cynicism of the old order; a new generation has been weaned on Western ideals and technology. Mahmoud Saikal, a former deputy foreign minister and now a political opponent of Karzai's, says that he and allies are forming a " national coalition" of such forces well in advance of 2014 to demonstrate that an alternative exists. Saikal, like other Afghans I spoke with, is worried about " America's short- term vision," by which he means American impatience with the Afghan adventure. That new Afghanistan is no mirage, but even by 2014 it will probably not be able to contend with the old one captained by Karzai. Even if Karzai, who is widely said to be exhausted and played out, chooses not to run once again, the power brokers in the palace will use all the means at their disposal to keep their grip on power. Karzai himself has already tried to preserve his freedom of maneuver by writing to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki- moon, asking the organization to abandon its current role overseeing national elections. So the bridge to the future is extremely rickety, and perhaps also booby-trapped. But the U.S. official I spoke to said that he would advocate a deliberate drawdown of forces even if he thought the probability of a good outcome in 2014 was low. Hasn't the West created a "moral hazard" for itself, he asks, by making such elaborate unfulfilled promises to the Afghan people over the years? Quite apart from any calculus of national interest, isn't it morally unacceptable to leave the Afghans to fend for themselves?