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Thu 11 Aug 2011 01:01 PM

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After troops leave, Obama must not abandon Aghanistan

US must find a way to withdraw, without collapse of Afghan government and a return to chaos

After troops leave, Obama must not abandon Aghanistan

Obama plans to bring home 10,000 troops by the end of 2011,
an additional 23,000 by the summer of 2012, and all US combat forces by 2014.
From his perspective, the US is “starting this drawdown from a position of
strength” – al Qaeda has been weakened, Osama bin Laden is dead, and the
Taliban have suffered “serious losses.”

Al Qaeda, the Taliban, the Afghan government and important
regional players such as Pakistan, India, China and Russia see the US
withdrawal differently. To them, Obama’s decision indicates that the US is
again abandoning Afghanistan. They are likely to compare it to the Soviet
pullout from Afghanistan in 1989. However false these regional perceptions
might be, unless the US moves quickly to counter them, these countries will act
in ways that will make it much harder to preserve even limited US gains in
Afghanistan.

For most Americans and Europeans, the Soviet war in
Afghanistan (1979 to 1989) is ancient history. But for Afghans, Pakistanis and
Indians, present-day events are following a disturbing pattern. In the 1980s,
the US armed the mujahedeen rebels who resisted the Soviet invasion. But once
the Soviets withdrew, Afghanistan was no longer a priority for the US.

 As Michael Armacost,
a top official responsible for American policy at the time put it, “We weren’t
interested in what happened in Afghanistan internally. We were just interested
in getting the Russians out.” Afghans and others probably wonder if the US sees
Afghanistan the same way today, with “al Qaeda” substituted for “the Russians.”

There are other worrisome parallels. Soviet leader Mikhail
Gorbachev viewed Afghanistan as a “bleeding wound” that undermined his efforts
to reform the domestic economy and build a benign new international image. Many
in the region suspect that Obama, like Gorbachev, would prefer to sacrifice the
Afghan government that his country installed and nurtured for 10 years, rather
than extend the war.

Faced with potential US abandonment, all the region’s key
actors will likely look to protect their interests. Afghan President Hamid
Karzai and the Taliban leadership are Pashtuns, Afghanistan’s largest ethnic
group. Karzai will be tempted to step up efforts to reconcile with elements of
the Taliban to unite Pashtuns behind his leadership, even if that alienates
Afghanistan’s non-Pashtuns. In turn, non-Pashtun leaders might consider
reviving ethnic militias to shield their people from the risk of Pashtun
domination.

Many Pakistanis will surely push a new narrative that
celebrates the US withdrawal for demonstrating, again, that Islamic militancy
can defeat a superpower. Pakistan can be expected to increase support for
insurgents in order to ensure its future influence in Afghanistan. The Taliban
and the Pakistanis may also try to delay reconciling with Karzai until after
the US leaves, because then their leverage will be greater.

India, Russia, the central Asian countries and China will
all be concerned that giving the Taliban a share of power would legitimise
Islamic militancy and encourage their own extremists. Russia has even supported
the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation’s involvement in Afghanistan. “The
minimum that we require from NATO is consolidating a stable political regime in
(Afghanistan) and preventing Talibanisation of the entire region,” Boris
Gromov, the last Soviet commander in Afghanistan, and Dmitri Rogozin, Russia’s
ambassador to NATO -- both normally anti-NATO hardliners -- wrote in January
2010. Iran also opposes a Taliban return to power.

To limit Taliban influence, especially along their borders,
these countries will consider reviving the Northern Alliance, a non-Pashtun
group that fought the Taliban from 1996 to 2001. That could lead to civil war.

Not all of these regional reactions are inevitable. To deter
them, the US should move quickly to prevent Afghanistan’s disintegration and
strengthen Karzai’s negotiating position. The key is to make absolutely clear
that the withdrawal of US combat troops doesn’t mean that America is abandoning
Afghanistan. Specifically, Obama should emphasise that the US will maintain a
military presence in Afghanistan to prevent al Qaeda’s return, to train the
Afghan army and to deter attempts by Pakistan or Iran to destabilise
Afghanistan. Ideally, officials in Washington should strike an agreement with
their counterparts in Kabul on the size and purpose of a post- 2014 military
presence.

It is important that Obama and the US Congress find the
money to pay and equip the Afghan military and police and pay for basic
government services until the Afghan government has the resources to do so. The
US also needs to reassure the Indians, Central Asians, Russians and Chinese
that Afghan reconciliation with parts of the Taliban doesn’t justify an effort
to reconstitute the Northern Alliance, or otherwise undermine the government in
Kabul. Most important of all is to persuade Pakistan’s leaders not to obstruct
negotiations on reconciliation.

The American public is obviously tired of war. On the other
hand, few would want to see their government squander a decade of US
involvement at a cost of almost 1,700 lives and hundreds of billions of
dollars. Having taken ownership of the war, President Obama has to find a way
to withdraw while preventing a collapse of the Afghan government and a return
to chaos. That is no easy task.

(This
is a Bloomberg View piece.
)

 

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