Five Policy Options for the U.S. in Afghanistan

President Barack Obama and Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai walk along the South Lawn Drive of the White House following their working lunch, May 12, 2010. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

An influential voice recently called for America’s exodus from Afghanistan. Richard Haass is the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, an independent New York-headquartered think tank and journal publisher. Haass’ opinion on Afghanistan is gaining steam among many observers.

In a recent Newsweek article entitled “We’re Not Winning. It’s Not Worth It.” Haas argues that Afghanistan is not strategically important to the United States and that the escalation of the war under President Obama is a mistake. According to Haass’, the US needs to leave Afghanistan. He lists five policy options for the Obama administration and while he does not like any of them, if he had to choose, Haas would pick the decentralization option.

The first option, as Haass sees it, is that the US can stick with the current COIN strategy, which Haass thinks cannot succeed in large part because of the Pakistani government’s assistance to the insurgency and because of the financial strain of such a robust military operation on the US budget. Haass notes that US operations in Afghanistan and Iraq are costing the US government about $100 billion a year.

The second option is for the US to start an immediate troop withdrawal, which Haass concedes will return Afghanistan to civil war. Another Afghan civil war would not be good for Afghans, the US, or the international community. Many thousands of Afghans would be killed and millions displaced to the neighboring countries.

Terrorist organizations, such as al Qaeda, are attracted to anarchic conditions because states in civil war provide little resistance against setting up headquarters and training camps. Good examples of this today are Somalia and Yemen, the former a failed state, the latter a failing state. Al Qaeda is operational in both Somalia and Yemen because of their weak central governments.

The third policy option that Haass lists is for the US to push for a peace deal with the insurgents. Known as “reconciliation,” insurgents would be pardoned and then reintroduced (“reintegration”) into Afghan society through government aid. Actually, Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the international community are already working on a reconciliation plan. It was originally presented at the London Conference on January 28. President Karzai laid down two demands for insurgents: they must accept the Afghan Constitution and renounce violence including all ties to al Qaeda.

However, while such a solution sounds good in theory, Haass does not think that it can work because the Taliban will likely refuse to compromise on some of its extreme positions. This is a good point because what if the Taliban, for example, agreed to make peace with the Karzai government only under the condition that women again be sidelined from Afghan society? Would Karzai be willing to compromise, or amend the Constitution to meet Taliban demands? What if Afghan leaders refused to amend the Constitution? Clearly, reconciliation with the Taliban will require significant compromise from one side or the other. It would seem that reconciliation cannot occur if either side insists on getting its own way.

Another point worth noting about reconciliation, as conceived by President Karzai and the international community, is that it assumes that insurgents fight because the Afghan economy is weak and the government is unable to provide services. This may be true in some cases but it is certainly not true across the board.

Matt Waldman, a Fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University, argues in his article “Golden Surrender” that not only do we have to look at what motivates the insurgents, but we also have to recognize what we are asking insurgents to do. They are being invited to join a society that to them is ruled by corrupt power brokers who fuel a patronage economy where those who are connected can get away with anything. Is there any hope for reconciliation? Haass does not think so.

The fourth option for the Obama administration is to push for a partitioned Afghanistan similar to the idea floated for Iraq a few years ago. In this scenario, the northern half of Afghanistan, which is dominated by Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras, some Pashtuns, and other ethnic groups, would form a single state. The predominantly Pashtun-dominated southern half of Afghanistan would be given to the Taliban. The Taliban and the other insurgent groups are overwhelmingly Pashtun.

Haass notes that a partitioned Afghanistan probably would not work because a separate Pashtun state would threaten Pakistan’s stability, since Pakistan is home also to 27 million Pashtuns most of whom live along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Indeed, the huge swath of land on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border is known as the “Pashtun Belt”. An independent Pashtun state on the Afghan side of the border could draw in the Pakistani Pashtuns. Haass suggests that if Afghanistan was partitioned, the US could keep the new Taliban state in check by drone airstrikes as needed.

There is another reason why a partitioned Afghanistan would not work. Afghans themselves likely would not support it. Haass points out that the southern half of Afghanistan is not mutually exclusive to the Pashtuns. Many Tajiks, for example, live in the south, and the capital Kabul, located in the south is a mix of many Afghan ethnic groups. The same can be said for the northern half of Afghanistan as whole Pashtun communities can be found there as well. Partition is certain to face fierce opposition from all Afghan ethnic groups, each group unwilling to “sell out” members of its own ethnic group to one side or the other of a partitioned Afghan state.

Haass prefers option five, or “decentralization,” to the others. In this scenario, the US would prop up pro-Western Afghan warlords. Haass argues that decentralization would accommodate Afghanistan’s centrifugal tendencies and the end result would be “less a partition than a patchwork quilt.” Haas notes that General David Petraeus, the top US Commander in Afghanistan, has recently managed to get Karzai’s support to establish militia forces all over the country. Presumably, these civilian forces could be used as a launching pad for warlords.

While Haass’ decentralization, or warlord, option looks reasonable in theory, it is problematic. The US has already undertaken three separate militia initiatives since 2006 and the results have been mostly negative. Mathieu Lefèvre, from the Afghanistan Analysts Network, documents the problems with raising Afghan militia forces in his article “Local Defense in Afghanistan”.

Lefèvre explains that in almost every case many of the people selected to join a militia were already previously linked to the militia leader, usually through tribal connections, and the result is a government sponsored warlord who uses the money channeled to him to create a petty fiefdom that is in competition with the police with whom the militia are supposed to be under. In addition, the militia fighters start bullying the people they are supposed to protect in order to get bribes.

It is ironic that Haass’ would use the phrase “patchwork quilt” to describe his idea of warlord rule in Afghanistan. The phrase is similar to the description used by noted Afghanistan expert and author, Larry Goodson, when he described the warlordism that the US supported back in 2002 under its “light footprint” strategy. In his 2003 and 2004 Afghanistan status reports, Goodson noted that US policy makers hoped warlordism would provide “a patchwork of security in the countryside.”

However, the 2002 warlord policy failed miserably and resulted in deeper US involvement in Afghanistan beginning with the introduction of the Provincial Reconstruction Teams that December. Goodson noted that the warlords themselves became a part of the security problem: “…Warlord-led militias contributed to insecurity as well, either through rapacious behavior toward civilian populations in their areas, criminal involvement with the narcotics industry, or power struggles with rival militias.”

It should also be remembered that it was the warlordism prevailing in the aftermath of the Soviet pullout from Afghanistan that led to the Taliban movement in 1994. Afghan warlord behavior has a terrible track record and this is why, as Lefèvre points out, most Afghans cringe at US efforts to reinstate civilian militias. Afghans view such schemes as warlordism by any other name. This is also why President Karzai initially resisted Petraeus’ recent plan to reinstate civilian militias: Karzai views too many warlords as a threat to his government.

In reality, Haass’ decentralization option would lead to the collapse of the Afghan police, the army, and eventually the Karzai government as power spreads to the warlords. Karzai himself might eventually become a warlord in Kabul.

Decentralization in the Afghan context is not a good policy. It is a sell-out to the Afghan people because the warlords will pillage them. What movement will such pillaging and lawlessness spawn then? If Afghanistan becomes another Somalia then there will certainly be a renewed al Qaeda threat. Afghanistan would become yet another example of US money going to prop up corrupt leaders, in this case warlords, to the detriment of the Afghan people.

While Haass’ decentralization scheme is a bad one, he is nevertheless right to be alarmed about Afghanistan today because the situation there shares many of the same elements of the Vietnam War. For instance, the insurgency is helped by outside states, or Pakistan and Iran, and is occurring at the grass roots level. Also, the central government is corrupt.

In reality, none of Haass’ options for Afghanistan are good ones. Yet, because of the overwhelming challenges that America faces in the conflict, it may find that it will be forced to leave Afghanistan some day. The great economic expense of the war or falling US public opinion could eventually lead to a US pullout. More frightening, if the US does eventually decide to leave Afghanistan, we can be assured that Haass’ five policy options will be on the table, including decentralization.