As we come up on the one-year anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden, the Obama administration is poised to sign a US-Afghan strategic partnership agreement that could be a prelude to Afghan civil war. Unless drastic policy changes are started immediately, reorienting US policy toward legitimate political negotiations between Afghan and regional entities, dark days lie ahead. It’s time to end the US war, but the United States cannot afford to abandon Afghans.
The Obama administration has been attempting to negotiate a Strategic Partnership Agreement with Afghanistan since last year through the State Department and the Department of Defense (DoD). According to reports about the negotiations, two major sticking points were control over Afghan detainees and US-led night raid operations. The United States and Afghanistan are now poised to sign an agreement before the NATO Summit in May, where the administration plans to roll out the agreement.
Unfortunately, the current negotiations and the agreement between the United States and Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai have been predicated on the US military staying involved in Afghanistan for the next decade, and not on actually providing resolution to the broad conflicts in Afghanistan and the region. Under this agreement, the US military will largely leave Afghanistan after 2014, but some residual forces will remain to “advise and assist” the Afghan military through at least 2024.
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The DoD and the Obama administration have maintained that the US war is going well, and that the United States is in the right position to begin to transition out of the lead role by the end of 2014. This directly contradicts information from the ground and from whistleblowers like Lt. Col. Daniel Davis, whose 84-page report has changed the conversation around Capitol Hill. It is clear that assessments regarding progress on the ground given by the military to Congress and the administration have been largely misleading.
The distance between rhetoric and reality is setting up the worst-case scenario.
Here is some forecasting: Congress will continue to take Pentagon rhetoric at face value and fund a plan unable to deliver peace or stability to Afghanistan, dismissing contradictory evidence, despite the knowledge that upwards of 70 percent of the American public is presently polling of in favor of withdrawal. The United States signs a strategic partnership agreement focused on fighting (first by the United States and then by Afghans) an insurgency that has consistently and historically risen to resist foreign involvement in Afghanistan. That agreement leads to a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) that backs the Afghan National Security Forces (presently at 352,000 and projected to be around 230,000 in 2014). This firmly pits the US-backed Afghan military against the Afghan-born, Pakistani-backed, Taliban-led insurgency and effectively deepens the Afghan civil war and regional proxy wars already driving much of the conflict.
Under this unfolding scenario, the United States fails to provide a process for viable political or economic transition. No legitimate regional political plan or Afghan-led reconciliation efforts are put in place. Post 2014, the United States is still making multibillion dollar investments in the Afghan government and security forces with little to show for it. Afghanistan is an increasingly violent and divided place as the civil war deepens and political will in the United States continues to fade. By 2015 or 2016, the United States bails on Afghanistan – full-scale abandonment – fulfilling the most common deeply held fear among average Afghans.
How can this scenario be avoided? Warring on for another so-called “fighting season” at the cost of thousands of lives and billions of dollars will deliver absolutely no additional political leverage, so don’t do it. Instead, end combat operations now and begin a military withdrawal. There are only political solutions to the political problems of Afghanistan and the region. The United States must immediately begin robust political negotiations predicated on ending the conflict on the Afghan and regional levels (Pakistan, India, China, Iran, etcetera) – an investment in peace that will have guaranteed dividends.
The latter scenario is the only hope for staving off civil war in Afghanistan. The current war strategy will not deliver peace and stability, but rather undermine both. It is not too late to change course, but time is rapidly fading.