Finding a solution in Afghanistan


MOUNTING CASUALTIES among Nato forces in Afghanistan are a continuing reminder that this is an increasingly intractable and probably unwinnable war. Many of Nato’s political leaders have already reached this conclusion and are quietly scaling down their commitment to it ahead of withdrawing troops. That is certainly not the case for the two principal powers involved. US president Barack Obama is determined to pursue his policy of military victory before political negotiation with the Taliban and so is the new British prime minister David Cameron, despite a decidedly more sceptical public opinion in both states.

Their critics say it is time to scale down ambitions there and to reduce and redirect the military effort. That the war is not succeeding is shown in the postponement of major campaigns against the Taliban in southern Afghanistan, they argue. Hence US objectives should be scaled back, and involvement on the ground sharply reduced. This critique is made even by senior US Republicans, although they are in a minority. But there is a more general emerging consensus that Afghanistan is claiming too many American lives, requiring too much attention, and absorbing too many resources.

A more realistic perspective on the war is emerging even among those most committed to fighting it. Afghanistan’s problems of rampant insecurity, endemic corruption, widespread poverty and weak government persist. They make the international efforts to bring in a stronger central government and build up the Afghan army to the point where it could take over from the Nato force difficult indeed. Most Afghans do not want Nato there and support efforts to reach a political deal with the Taliban, based on the assumption that it is not a unified resistance run by al-Qaeda, but a coalition of regional and local opponents who could be attracted to an alternative path. Any negotiated end to the war will have to take these realities into account. It will also have to involve neighbouring states – Pakistan especially – more centrally because of the overlapping interests and loyalties between Pashtuns on both sides of that border.

Widespread perceptions that Nato is not winning, along with the disagreements about its strategy revealed by the recent replacement of top military commanders and diplomats, are leading Afghan and regional actors to anticipate a different outcome. If the current US strategy fails there are fears of a new civil war between pro-Taliban Pashtun, anti-Taliban Pashtun and non-Pashtun groups in northern Afghanistan. Its outcome could be an effective partition between the north and south of the country, which could make parts of it even more of a haven for international terrorism. Pakistan and India are positioning themselves pre-emptively ahead of a possible Nato withdrawal. The Afghan president Hamid Karzai wants to draw Taliban leaders into negotiations, which puts him at odds with US policy.

This rapidly changing picture should encourage Mr Obama to make a much greater effort to resolve the war politically. It has become his major foreign policy question – and could become his Vietnam.