However, on the issue of working out an exit strategy, Washington is nowhere near resolving the two basic issues—the rate of troop withdrawal from Afghanistan and the nature of the final settlement that will allow the United States to officially declare the end of the war. It is evident that on the question of finalising the rate of troop withdrawal, there exist a number of views dominating discussions within the Obama administration.
“¦U.S. military mission in Afghanistan that would focus on weakening al-Qaeda rather than on defeating the indigenous Taliban insurgency.
During the final visit of U.S. secretary of defense Robert Gates (who will step down on 30 June) to Afghanistan, the drawdown of troops, set to begin in July, loomed large. The commander of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force and U.S. Forces-Afghanistan, General David Petraeus, has insisted that while these numbers are still being formulated internally, the idea of reductions of U.S. forces to the order of 3,000–5,000 has been discussed in recent weeks. There are currently nearly 100,000 U.S. troops and some 40,000 additional allied forces in the country. The responsibility for security across the country is slated to be turned over to Afghan hands by 2014, at which point, all combat forces are expected to be withdrawn. Reports have begun to emerge that the White House is considering more significant reductions.
Chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, John Kerry, is a long-time friend and former Senate colleague of U.S. vice president, Joe Biden, who in the 2009 war strategy review argued for a smaller U.S. military mission in Afghanistan that would focus on weakening al-Qaeda rather than on defeating the indigenous Taliban insurgency. Kerry has called the war’s $10 billion-a-month cost “unsustainable,” and recently his committee issued a report critical of the economic assistance program that is a key part of the counterinsurgency strategy’s goal of bringing stability and government to parts of the country once controlled by the Taliban.
Kissinger pointed out that the quest for an exit from Afghanistan has reportedly taken the form of negotiations under German sponsorship between representatives of Mullah Omar, the head of the Taliban, and American officials.
With bin Laden’s death, some civilian advisers, led by national security adviser Thomas E. Donilon, have a fresh argument for a more targeted approach. In an interview, Kerry said that “part of the struggle here is to get people here, my colleagues included,” to focus on “what is the objective.”
“What I would urge, and what the president needs to think about here, is what is the best way now to take advantage of that so that you don’t go backwards, but that you also don’t necessarily stick with the kind of reach that you had because you don’t need to,” Kerry said. “I don’t see this as changing the current strategy because it’s somehow not working.”
In the face of hawkish calls for a negligible drawdown, influential U.S. senator Carl Levin has suggested a significant withdrawal of 15,000 American troops this year. But Secretary Gates has said that Obama should move cautiously in removing troops from a battlefield where the gains, in the White House’s own assessment, remain “fragile and reversible.” Said Gates in his recent farewell speech in Brussels to NATO bureaucrats, “I can tell you there will be no rush to the exits. The vast majority of the surge forces that arrived over the past two years will remain through the summer fighting season. Far too much has been accomplished, at far too great a cost, to let the momentum slip away just as the enemy is on its back foot.”
Also hanging fire is the issue of how to exit the Afghanistan theatre. In the 7 June Washington Post op-ed, former secretary of state Henry Kissinger pointed out that the quest for an exit from Afghanistan has reportedly taken the form of negotiations under German sponsorship between representatives of Mullah Omar, the head of the Taliban, and American officials. Kissinger said, “Most observers will treat this as the beginning of an inexorable withdrawal. The death of bin Laden, while not operationally relevant to current fighting, is a symbolic dividing line. Still, the challenge remains of how to conclude our effort without laying the groundwork for a wider conflict.”
Kissinger noted: “”¦If their interests in Afghanistan are not related to ours to some extent, Afghanistan will exist under permanent threat”¦”
Kissinger continued, “For negotiation to turn into a viable exit strategy, four conditions must be met: a cease-fire; withdrawal of all or most American and allied forces; the creation of a coalition government or division of territories among the contending parties (or both); and an enforcement mechanism. Enforcement is the most crucial element and the most difficult to sustain. After decades of civil war, the parties are unlikely to feel bound by provisions of any agreement. The Taliban especially will try to take over the coalition government or breach the cease-fire. In the absence of a plausible enforcement mechanism, a negotiation with the Taliban, whose forces remain while ours leave, will turn into a mechanism for collapse.
“An enforcement mechanism can be a residual American force, some international guarantee or presence, or — best — a combination of both. Total withdrawal is likely to be final; there should be no illusion of re-intervention.”
Kissinger also noted, “Afghanistan’s other neighbours would be at comparable risk if a Taliban-dominated government or region reverted to the Taliban’s original practices. Every neighbour would be threatened: Russia in its partly Muslim south, China in Xinjiang, and Shiite Iran by fundamentalist Sunni trends. In turn, Iran would be tempted by the vacuum to arm sectarian militias, a strategy it has honed in Lebanon and Iraq.”
Finally, he concluded, “The complexities of an exit strategy are compounded because relations with Pakistan and Iran are severely strained. These countries do not have the option of withdrawing from the neighbourhood. If their interests in Afghanistan are not related to ours to some extent, Afghanistan will exist under permanent threat. Without a sustainable agreement defining Afghanistan’s regional security role, each major neighbour will support rival factions across ancient ethnic and sectarian lines — and be obliged to respond to inevitable crises under the pressure of events. That is a prescription for wider conflict. Afghanistan could then play the role of the Balkans prior to World War I.”