A Possible Path Out of Afghanistan

The unpredictable Afghan leader Hamid Karzai has issued new demands for the U.S. to meet if it wants to keep a smaller military force in Afghanistan after 2014, creating a possible route for the U.S. to finally end its longest war, writes ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

With attention justifiably focused on the new nuclear deal with Iran, much less public notice has been taken of steps to make America’s longest war even longer. Negotiations with a difficult Hamid Karzai over a bilateral security agreement (including a just-completed trip to Afghanistan by national security adviser Susan Rice) aim to provide a legal framework for keeping American troops in Afghanistan until 2024.

U.S. forces intervened in the Afghan civil war in 2001. If a U.S. military presence continues for the duration of a new agreement, that’s 23 years. Some soldiers who were part of the early deployments could have come home, gotten married, and had kids who will enlist and serve in the same war their parents did. The post-2014 missions are supposed to be training and counterterrorism, but amid an ongoing war, U.S. troops will be at war as long as they are there.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai greeting U.S. Army Lt. Gen. James L. Terry in Kabul, Afghanistan, in March 2013.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai greeting U.S. Army Lt. Gen. James L. Terry  in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Aug. 21, 2012. (Photo credit: U.S. Defense Department)

commander of International Security Assistance Force Joint Command, at Kabul International Airport, Afghanistan, on Aug, 21, 2012. (Photo credit: U.S. Navy Chief Petty Officer Roger Duncan)

Karzai has been acting somewhat strangely lately, most recently with his refusal to sign promptly a draft agreement even though its endorsement by an Afghan loya jirga should have given him sufficient political cover to do so. The demands he has most recently been making of the United States as supposed conditions of signing sound reasonable at first glance, but upon further reflection it is hard to see exactly what the Obama administration could be expected to do in response.

One demand is for help in getting peace talks going with the Taliban. The United States is already on the right side of that one. It always could give this cause more effort and priority, but with other diplomatic tasks — especially the Iran negotiations — on the plates of the President and Secretary of State, it is probably wise that they not try to burn much more of their energy on this one.

The other demand is for release of all Afghan citizens from Guantanamo. As Karzai should know, Mr. Obama’s freedom of action to realize his goal of closing the detention facility at Guantanamo has been severely curtailed by Congress, although the Senate recently gave a glimmer of hope that this might change.

Karzai is a short-timer lame duck, and some of these negotiating problems may go away when he completes his term. But there are more fundamental problems with the American approach to Afghanistan that have to do with American politics and stale American conventional wisdom.

President Obama avoided what would have been a new political issue when he firmly and correctly refused an earlier Karzai demand to apologize for the actions of American troops in raiding Afghan homes. Against the backdrop of the imaginary “apology tour” he was alleged to have taken in his first term, it is easy to imagine the hay that his domestic political opponents would have made of any acquiescence in that demand.

But Mr. Obama is still burdened by the role that Afghanistan has played as the “good war” that has been a counterpoint to the bad war in Iraq that to his credit he opposed from the beginning. Bad war or not, his opponents criticized him for not trying hard enough to seal a deal with the Iraqi government to keep some U.S. troops there.

Against that backdrop — and with the importance of his efforts to use diplomacy to avoid what would be another very bad war, with Iran — he cannot afford to do things in Afghanistan that make him look like an isolationist wimp. And so the push for a bilateral security agreement with Afghanistan continues.

The stale conventional wisdom is what has led many Americans and American policymakers of both parties to view impoverished Afghanistan, a graveyard of empires half a globe away from the United States, as somehow so key to U.S. security that it would warrant keeping U.S. troops in a civil war there for nearly a quarter century. This attitude is another of the unfortunate aftereffects of the national trauma that was 9/11.

The attitude ignores how terrorist threats are not based primarily on possession of a piece of real estate, how the Afghan Taliban has no incentive (at least not without being under constant U.S. attack) for playing host again to al-Qaeda, how even if a piece of real estate is useful to terrorists Afghanistan is hardly the only piece available, and how the radical Sunni terrorist threat has already diffused far beyond Afghanistan.

Even if negotiations with the Taliban acquire momentum, future political arrangements in Afghanistan will depend mostly on what they always have depended on there: a lot of local deals rather than one single national one. And even if U.S. military trainers and advisers make good progress in imparting skills to Afghan troops, the loyalties of those troops will be as fragile and fungible as they always have been in Afghanistan.

The zero option for what kind of military presence the United States should have in Afghanistan after 2014 should not be regarded as just a failure of negotiations. It should be regarded as a possible outcome desirable in its own right. Karzai’s frustrating negotiating behavior might be a useful hook for helping to get us there.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

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7 comments on “A Possible Path Out of Afghanistan

  1. F. G. Sanford on said:

    There was once a saying popular among salespeople: “Samson slew a thousand Philistines with the jawbone of an ass. Every day, a thousand sales are killed with the same instrument.” If my deepest desire were to get the hell out of Afghanistan, I too would have chosen Susan Rice to negotiate the deal. Sometimes, we just don’t give The President the credit he deserves.

  2. Great article. Let me throw this out there; how long after we leave Afghanistan will Karzai stay? Don’t you thing that Karzai could jump ship high tail it to Paris with his millions and have a nice life? I would imagine that for Karzai this would be a welcome relief.
    By the way, what is America’s mission in Afghanistan? America should learn to stay out of foreign civil wars. Didn’t George Washington have a policy in regard to getting involved in foreign national conflicts? You would think that after being involved in Afghanistan for over the last ten years these would be easy questions to answer. Plus, catching Osama was a pin point special opt’s mission from the get go. So what is/was our mission anyway?

  3. Joeyted very good comment — I agree 100%
    Get the US Military out of ALL Muslim countries ASAP.
    Obama’s drone assassination peace plan should be abandoned.
    We seem to be fighting a neocon war against Islam orchestrated by Israel…

  4. The US will do anything to stay in Afghanistan for severa reasons; Caspian Sea oil, heroin cultivation, and containment of China, Russia, Iran and Pakistan. Both Jewish and military lobbies are against bring forces back from Afghanistan.

    Karzai is a small fish sent from America. It could be removed easily with the help of CIA-Mossad-RAW. the main problem is nuclear Pakistan which doesn’t want a pro-India hostile regime in Kabul. Taliban have been friends of Pakistan from the day one.

    The lack of trust between Obama and Karzai is mutual.

    http://rehmat1.com/2013/11/21/karzai-i-dont-trust-the-us/

  5. We have made our point with the drones. Time to move on up to a higher road with soft diplomacy leading the way. We can do this. Call it The Reverse Project for the New American Century. We need to rethink how we make money. Capitalism has much to offer and yet still may allow for the better welfare of the commons. There now are currently 7 billion better of our wise species moving around each other, and we ain’t getting any smaller (even with war). Time to reduce all nuke’s. Ref; George Marshal, Eisenhower towards Israel, but stand with Jewish people. I do believe Israel to be our only ally, but Kerry did recently bring up Israel’s encroachment into the West Bank. I guess it would like be telling my brother to leave your wife a lone. It is time to get off Islam, too. This country of ours America is founded on the concept of freedom of religion. So promote this ideal, this value. Currently if it were Islam where does this leave us but with Saudi Arab along side Israel. Strange bed fellows wouldn’t you say? It isn’t religion, but it works somewhere into this continual prelude to this war, and that war. Did I mention yet another war. So time to nuke down. This would include the U.S.A. and would also include Israel, and Russia, along with India, China & many more others…many, many, others still! Sell farming equipment, Hollywood, and get Americans some career occupations! Tks for the reply to my comment.

  6. Joe Tedesky on said:

    Maybe someone could point out to the scare ‘the BeJesus it’s Chamberlain Again Crowd’ that the U.S. could have maybe have had a say in Chamerlain’s decision if the then obstructing Republicans would have not stood in the way of Wilson’s wish to join the League of Nations. (Bad time for umbrella sales). The whole total end of The Great War may have been different if not for Senator Henry Cabot Lodge & fellow Republicans/blue dog Dem’s actions of 1919. Maybe, if someone other than Edward House was present while the map makers were downstairs screwing up the rest of the world in the first place back then in 1919. Maybe we would have done the right thing, and there would have never been a Munich Agreement for Chamberlain to sign. I might add that listening to Keynes would have prevented another Hilter, but then again retribution goes along way when your idea of a brilliant profit motive is war. Plow Shares not Weapons…wasn’t that Dwight David Eisenhower said?
    The Fox Tea Party talking point attack p5+1 campaign can be turn upside down & inside out with a little more imagination. I like the intellect of most comments on this site & hope ya all don’t mine me chiming in!

  7. Joe Tedesky on said:

    My last comment above belongs on…
    See “Neocon Name Calling on Iran Deal” by Robert Parry

    Posted here by mistake