The American president’s initiatives do not appear to be changes of principle in the U.S. position on the Afghanistan issue. They merely testify that the U.S. is approaching the concluding phase of troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, the preparation for which has been conducted by the current administration throughout recent years, regardless of opposition from the American military and opponents from the Republican Party.
A departure from Afghanistan was not only one of Barack Obama’s basic campaign promises, it is also being written into his administration’s general line of bringing U.S. domestic political ambitions into accordance with the country’s economic opportunities. The task at the current stage is the completion of the lost Afghanistan campaign with the least possible political damage to the U.S.
The failure of the U.S. and NATO operation in Afghanistan has long been an open secret. According to former presidential adviser Bruce Riedel, who has spearheaded the current administration’s Afghanistan policy, Barack Obama realized four years ago that he had “inherited a disaster in Afghanistan, a war that we were rapidly losing.” Henceforth, admissions of that reality were heard more and more frequently. The conclusions of a report of military experts from the Bagram base at the beginning of 2012, that NATO forces had suffered defeats in the Afghan War and that the Taliban would return to power in Kabul quickly after the departure of International Coalition Forces, have acquired widespread fame. Senator Michael Rogers also assessed the situation analogously after visiting Afghanistan last year.
However, it turned out to be much harder to exit the war than to start it. According to Bruce Riedel, the preparation of acceptable conditions for concluding the war became the goal of Barack Obama’s Afghan policy: during the first stage, block the Taliban’s attempts to overthrow Hamid Karzai’s government, and then form a combat-ready Afghan army which could replace foreign forces in the future. The “pacification” of the Taliban, an attempt to soften the consequences of their inevitable return to power by means of an orderly integration of the “Taliban” into the Afghan political system, became the second task.
But if at first the U.S. tried to build a sensible strategy for exiting the Afghan deadlock, then already in 2011, according to former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, more and more emphasis was placed “on exit, not strategy.” Illusions that an exit of forces could be carried out in proportion to the combat-readiness of the forming Afghan army, which lasted some time, turned more and more into a striving to escape Afghanistan with the handover of all positions and a relinquishing of previously advanced demands.
The handover of positions according to the parameters and conditions of the Western coalition troop withdrawal has proceeded gradually but steadily. The solutions of the 2010 NATO Lisbon Summit on the gradual turnover of responsibility for guaranteeing security in Afghanistan to the government forces contained the demand that the pace of the process depend on “concrete circumstances and not on a timetable” for the troop withdrawal. But in the resolutions of the 2012 NATO Chicago summit the talk was first and foremost about observing mainly the timetable and about an absolute conclusion of the process by the end of 2014.
At the same time notions of the number of American troops who were supposed to remain in Afghanistan after 2014 changed. Commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan John Allen recently proposed leaving 15000 of the current 66000 military service people there. According to American press reports, the talk in the White House is now more frequently of 6000 to 9000. And right on the eve of Hamid Karzai’s arrival in Washington, Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes stated that the administration does not rule out a full withdrawal of American troops in 2014.
The adjustment in the U.S. position arises not least importantly under the influence of moods among its coalition partners, who one after the other are taking measures to hasten the withdrawal of service people from Afghanistan and do not wish to shell out money for the maintenance of Afghan security forces in the period after the withdrawal of the Western contingent. Australia declared an accelerated withdrawal of its sub-units in April of last year, as did New Zealand in August, and Great Britain in December; France concluded its participation in military operations ahead of schedule in November, leaving only 1500 personnel for removing equipment and training the Afghan army.
The situation with financing the Afghan army and police in the period after 2014 looks no better. Coalition members are expected to spend $4 billion a year on it. At the same time, according to Heritage Foundation figures, Great Britain is prepared to pay no more than $110 million and Germany $195 million, while the U.S. spends $2 billion (at present Washington spends $4 billion every twelve days). Heritage Foundation analysts point out that the negative moods of U.S. partners on the Afghan operation reflect their general dissatisfaction with the American approach to cooperation in the framework of NATO with “the Administration’s so-called pivot to Asia, lack of interest in European missile defense, and reduction in U.S. troop numbers in Europe.”
U.S. agreement to the establishment of a representative office of the “Taliban” movement in the capital of Qatar, Doha, announced during Hamid Karzai’s visit, means merely a formalization of the negotiating process with the movement, which has been ongoing for more than a year.
The start of negotiations with Taliban signaled a shift of principles in the U.S. position, a shift which opened the way to the Taliban in future Afghan power structures, even though it was already obvious then that the result would be a weakening of the non-Pashtun ethnic groups (Tadjiks, Uzbeks and Hazara Shiites, united in the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance) and the departure of Hamid Karzai from the political arena. It is no coincidence that the Afghan president announced during his visit to Washington that he would not run for election in 2014.
The U.S. showed interest in peaceful negotiations with the Taliban as early as 2010. As Bruce Riedel remarked, at first Washington had great doubts about the effectiveness of such contacts, in as much as there was a lack of confidence that the Taliban would want to discuss anything other than the release of their comrades-in-arms held prisoner in Guantanamo and the removal of “Taliban” members from the UN terrorist list. However, in the presidential administration it was supposed that “there was no reason not to make such an effort.”
The development of the negotiating process with the Taliban is described in detail in a report of the Congressional Research Service, released in January 2013, days before the beginning of the Afghan president’s visit to America. According to the report, it was namely after the advancement in September 2010 of Washington’s initiative on the necessity of a search for means of national reconciliation in Afghanistan that the High Peace Council was formed, to which Karzai named Burhanuddin Rabbani, former president of Afghanistan and leader of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, as head.
At the same time the Americans initiated informal contacts with the Taliban, who refused to recognize Hamid Karzai’s government, considering it a puppet of the West. In the first half of 2011, under the mediation of Germany and Qatar, no fewer than three rounds of negotiations took place with representatives of the “Taliban” leadership, which was confirmed at the official level by then-U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates. The process was interrupted in September of that year after the killing of Rabbani and the killing of Pakistani border guards by American soldiers. However, U.S. contacts with the Taliban were resumed as early as December 2011. It was then that the decision was taken to establish a “Taliban” political office in Qatar in order to facilitate the conduct of negotiations, although it has not been set up till now due to problems that have arisen in the negotiations.
One of the concrete topics discussed at the negotiations were measures proposed by the U.S. on the creation of an atmosphere of trust between the two sides. At issue was an exchange of five Guantanamo prisoners under house arrest in Qatar in exchange for the release by the Taliban of the American POW Bowie Bergdahl. Furthermore, Washington insisted on the “Taliban” publicly declaring a severance of relations with al-Qaida and other terrorist groups and also discussed perspectives for negotiations of the Taliban directly with representatives of Hamid Karzai’s government. Contacts were severed in March 2012 supposedly because Qatar could not guarantee the reliable custody of Taliban under house arrest. However, representatives of the “Taliban” have since remained in Qatar, although lacking formal representation.
An essential change in the position of Pakistan, which has turned out to be a key party to a settlement, has become an important factor allowing U.S. leadership to carry out a solution to the Afghan problem in the conclusive phase. As former Pakistani President Raza Gilani declared, in Afghanistan “nothing will happen without us, because we are part of the solution.” Pakistan is known for its close ties to the “Taliban” and has more than once gotten into conflict with the U.S. because it granted refuge to Taliban in its territory. However, striving for a withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan and the return to the Taliban of control over a basic portion of the country, Pakistani authorities, it seems, have come to the conclusion that it is possible to speed up this process only by granting the U.S. the opportunity to “save face.” And for that it is necessary to create the appearance of a successful internal Afghan political settlement.
A number of problems have appeared on the path to including the “Taliban” in political dialogue. As experts of the American analytical company Stratfor have noticed, it was first of all necessary to remove the “Taliban” from the international list of terrorist organizations, and secondly to pick out from the movement a moderate political wing, which was not simple in so far as that organization consists mainly of fighters and is not used to acting as a political party. Nonetheless, the first steps toward including the Taliban in the political process have already been made. In June 2011, after official affirmation of talks between the U.S. and the Taliban, UN Resolutions N1988 and N1989 were passed, formally separating the “Taliban” from “al-Qaida.” As soon as February 2012 Pakistan publicly called the “Taliban” to negotiations on a peaceful conclusion to the Afghan conflict.
As a result of these efforts, in June 2012 representatives of the “Taliban” carried out two meetings with officials of the Afghan government (in Paris and Kyoto), in August one more negotiation took place and in December even representatives of the Northern Alliance took part in an informal dialogue with the Taliban in Paris. Those contacts demonstrated that the “Taliban” under pressure from Pakistan is ready to conduct negotiations with current Afghan authorities, including on the future political structure and a new constitution for the country. In November 2012, Islamabad undertook diplomatic efforts at stimulating this process. After consultations with representatives of the Afghan government and of the High Peace Council, Pakistani authorities released eighteen high-ranking members of the “Taliban,” who turned out to be supporters of national reconciliation, and in December eight more moderate Taliban members were freed.
Thus, by the time of Barack Obama’s announcement of initiatives to accelerate the conclusion of military operations in Afghanistan, the political preconditions necessary for it had been formally created. A large part of the country’s territory has been handed over to the control of Afghan government forces, and as early as spring they will take on the basic responsibility for all military operations; the process of national reconciliation with the participation of fundamental Afghan political powers is ongoing; the presence of foreign military contingents is dwindling and their participation in operations is decreasing.
However, one should admit that maneuvers around a political settlement in Afghanistan do not deceive any one of the participants in the process. Forces inside Afghanistan opposing the Taliban are already actualizing work on mobilizing their armed forces, preparing for a new division of the country into zones of influence. And the Americans themselves relate to the fact of negotiations with the Taliban rather cynically. As Bruce Riedel declared back at the beginning of the negotiating process with the Taliban, even in the event of the failure of a peaceful political settlement, “it would be much better if it was clearly the fault of the Taliban than the fault of the United States.”