Afghanistan: The Consequences of a "Conceptual Withdrawal"
KABUL—“We have moved from a narrative, which lasted for years, that everything was fine when it wasn’t to a narrative that everything is going wrong when it isn’t.” This lament from a former Western official, who, like others quoted in this piece, did not speak for attribution, summed up the frustrations of many in Kabul about the growing disconnect between the political timetables inside and outside the country. The concern is not only that the various transition deadlines are unrealistic, but that their very existence is creating counterproductive pressures that will make them even harder to achieve.
After last weekend’s Wikileaks publication of more than 90,000 classified military documents that paint a bleak picture of the war at the grassroots level, it has become even more difficult to argue that there is indeed any good news coming out of Afghanistan. But the one thing about last week’s Kabul Conference on which everyone agrees is that the event happening at all was a tremendous success.
The largest gathering of foreign leaders to be held in Afghanistan in 30 years passed off without any serious security incidents. Forty foreign ministers flew in to sign off on plans that will channel at least 50% of development aid through the government’s core budget and transfer security responsibility to Afghan National Security Forces by the end of 2014. For Karzai, this constituted the most visible show of international endorsement since last year’s controversial presidential elections. One senior Western diplomat – a noted critic of the president – described him as more confident, more engaged, and more willing to take on responsibilities he had previously evaded.
Still, the balance of opinion in Kabul remains pessimistic. This is due in part to long-standing reasons: a dire security situation; minimal progress in addressing pervasive corruption; doubts about the government’s capacity to extend its writ across the country whatever the success of U.S. military efforts; and profound concerns about the speed with which Afghan security forces can be built up. Many of these problems have been expected to coalesce during the parliamentary elections in September.
The newfound fear is that while the battle here is still on, it may already have been lost in western capitals. As a senior Asian diplomat here put it: “The theater is now Washington, DC, not Afghanistan; there has already been a conceptual withdrawal.” This is not to say that there is any collective expectation of a major military drawdown. In views that were widely repeated, one prominent Afghan security analyst argued, “More and more, people don’t believe that the U.S. is going to leave us anytime soon…at the very least, the five major bases will stay.” Rather, the fear is that there is a collective rush to shake off political responsibility: the pressure from national capitals is now directed toward finding a narrative to justify disengagement rather than delivering the best settlement possible in the circumstances.
Not all consequences of the shortening timeframes are bad. The exit dates are helping to force the pace on certain issues. Some diplomats who have no belief that Afghan security forces will be ready by 2014 contended that the effort to meet the commitment will at least speed up the process. And advocates of reconciliation are pleased that there is now a broad international consensus behind the principle, even if it has come about as a result of desperation rather than conviction.
Yet few fail to note the damaging repercussions of the newfound focus on deadlines. If talk of a withdrawal beginning in July 2011 gave the Taliban the scent of victory, the wider political and diplomatic ramifications of the new withdrawal dynamic are just as acute. Corruption is expected to worsen. As one Afghan political adviser said, “The attitude in the ministries is: if people are going to leave in two years, we should make money while we still have time.” And there is even greater anxiety about the risks of an overly hasty effort at reconciliation, on which so many hopes are now being pinned. “We should try to do it seriously, but instead we’re getting the view emerging that a stitched-up deal backed by Pakistan would be the best thing…the Taliban and Pakistan are only going to need to produce the illusion of peace at the right moment, and even that will come at a heavy price,” as one former Western diplomat put it. This dynamic may have been reinforced by the WikiLeaks documents. Afghan officials in Kabul suggested that the task of “selling” reconciliation internally has been made more difficult since the reports created the impression that the key deal to be struck is with Islamabad.
These observers harbor few if any illusions about what the West can still achieve in Afghanistan; indeed, many of them have taken a consistently skeptical position toward the U.S. administration’s more ambitious goals. But there is a striking consensus across the opinion spectrum that the current cycle of implausible expectations, crashing disappointments, and ever-shortening deadlines are making even a more modest set of objectives increasingly difficult to achieve.