Three principles that currently seem almost taboo in Washington policy-making circles point the way to an honorable exit strategy from Afghanistan for the U.S. These principles are of course moot to the degree that Washington may have no intention of leaving, but for those searching for an American exit strategy that leaves Afghanistan in peace, these principles offer an initial set of guidelines.
- Local Control: Muslim socio-political reform should be managed first by locals and second by neighboring non-Western societies;
- Civil Society First: The method should always give precedence to civil society reform with military action firmly subordinated;
- Afghan Independence: The goal should not be incorporation into the American system but the establishment of an independent society.
But how can they be implemented?
Neither as a society nor as a government, has the U.S. even come close to answering this challenging question. In fact, the question almost seems to be considered unacceptable in polite conversation, as though even to ask were somehow to “embarrass,” a sin in Washington far worse than hypocrisy.
Whether “local” means “tribal,” “Afghan,” “Muslim,” or “Central Asian,” it implies that decisions do not flow from Washington, but what other organizations are willing to step up to take leadership and, of course, how are their members to be protected? Are there politically neutral civil society organizations that could be accepted by both sides, that could negotiate with both sides to carve out spaces for action? Might there be members or factions of the Taliban willing to accept moderate Muslim but modernizing civil society activities in return for the removal of U.S. forces and their inclusion in the political process?
Iran. One piece of a non-American solution is Iran, which has been providing electricity and other economic aid to the Herat region, the area of its traditional influence, but Iranian aid allegedly can cut both ways. Whatever the truth of Pentagon charges that Iran aids the Taliban, it is certainly aiding Afghan society more generally, including the building of a new university and, sometimes, in the face of American opposition. Iran also fulfills its aid pledges much more reliably than does the U.S.
Turkey. Turkey is, albeit slowly, taking the initiative to support Afghan development. Two questions concerning this potentially important development concern Turkey’s resolve to act in time, given the urgency of the situation, and whether Turkey will act primarily as a member of NATO or primarily as a Muslim country.
Civil Society. The Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief or other international relief coordinating bodies might be a route to building Afghan society that could be accepted by both the U.S. and the Taliban if the Taliban could be granted a role in building society so they would not see destruction as their route to power. A good beginning would be for the U.S. to give the kind of emphasis to improving Afghan civil administration it is giving to building up Afghan security forces. Arif Rafiq recommends that the Organization of the Islamic Conference take the lead; why that group has not been more active on Afghanistan so far is unclear.
Civil Society First:
Whatever the politically correct words from McCrystal, as long as the Pentagon is in charge, the hammer it holds in its hand will always be the main tool employed. How might Washington transfer initiative from the Pentagon to civilian organs of government?
Medecins Sans Frontiers has returned to Afghanistan for the first time in five years, because it views the situation as worsening. Whether or not MSF will be better protected this time than back in 2004, when it left Afghanistan because its personnel were being murdered, remains to be seen.
Whatever Washington’s intent, to the degree that it unilaterally constructs military bases in Afghanistan, it will give the impression that it plans to colonize Afghanistan and use it as a base for threatening regional states. Both care in constructing bases that are obviously designed for counterinsurgency use only (rather than regional power projection) and a focus on obtaining approval from regional states (specifically including Iran) in advance would be useful steps for signaling a willingness to support true Afghan independence. Far more important would be a fundamental shift in military policy from a U.S.-centric to a Muslim-centric military force.
Rafiq, for example, recommends that only Muslim troops be sent to Afghanistan. This intuitively appealing approach would entail new dangers – highly unstable Bangladesh might suffer blowback of its own were it to get involved in the Afghan conflict; Turkey might appear to be just another NATO member; Saudi involvement would raise the already high threat of further Saudi sponsorship of Salafi extremism; it is hard to see how Egypt or Iran could be a force for the sponsorship of democracy. However, while these concerns merit consideration, they pale beside the horrors and self-defeating nature of massive American forces. Might sufficient forces be assembled from such Muslim states as Morocco, Kosovo, Bosnia, Montenegro, Malaysia, and Indonesia? Might an Asian even if non-Muslim force be able to play a significant role, perhaps in guarding regions currently peaceful?
Wise policy-makers in Washington will start thinking seriously about how an honorable exit strategy from Afghanistan might be designed. Both the obvious worsening of the situation since Washington turned its primary attention to invading Iraq six long years ago and the easily overlooked historical record of American military interventions in developing world conflicts support the contention that Washington needs to have a carefully planned exit strategy.
The result of American intervention in Vietnam was the destruction of Vietnamese culture; a disastrous defeat for the U.S. that provoked stagflation and opened the strategic door to the Soviet Union; a dishonorable rooftop escape for Americans accompanied by a treacherous abandoning of America’s Vietnamese allies; and the needless death of perhaps 4,000,000 people.
The result of American intervention in Iraq remains to be seen but already includes perhaps 1,000,000 dead; tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers with wounds so severe their lives are destroyed; invalidation of America’s claim to being moral leader of the world; and the provocation of an Iraqi domestic terror campaign that may yet spill over into the rest of the world.
Designing an exit strategy that will save the U.S. from another defeat and make possible a stable, decently governed Afghanistan will require an uncommon degree of policy-making creativity and humility. It is time to get started.