Afghanistan: Withdrawal Lessons

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The withdrawal of NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) forces from Afghanistan in 2014 is likely to be followed by a civil war between a predominantly non-Pashtun security apparatus and Pakistan-backed Taliban forces. Afghanistan’s neighbors and other global players will heavily influence this conflict, most importantly the U.S. and Pakistan. China, India, Russia, and the Central Asian states will also play a role as the Taliban attempt to reassert themselves. As we confront this reality, we would be wise to look closely at the experience of the Soviet Union following its occupation of Afghanistan in the late 1980s.

The prime lessons from that ill-fated moment is the need to provide continued economic and military support to the leadership in Kabul and to obtain the support of Pakistan, while maintaining sufficient intelligence and covert action infrastructure on both sides of the frontier those countries share. A sustainable relationship with Pakistan is critical both because of their role in any political solution in Afghanistan and the risks to the international community posed by Pakistan’s own instability. The U.S.’ decision this October to restore large portions of financial and military aid to Pakistan is a step in the right direction, as is President Obama’s outreach to Pakistani President Nawaz Sharif.

Afghanistan’s other neighbors can help primarily by abstaining from using Afghanistan as a venue to play out their proxy wars. This of course applies to Pakistan as well, but in their case their vested interest and proven unwillingness to refrain from maintaining “strategic depth” in Afghanistan makes negotiation the only solution that can save future blood and treasure. Countries with economic interests in the region, such as China and Russia, can also play a constructive role through continued investment and adherence to anti-corruption and social corporate responsibility programs.

U.S. Support for Kabul

In the aftermath of its retreat from Afghanistan in 1989, the already crumbling Soviet Union was able to provide funding and military support to prop up President Mohammed Najibullah for three years. That level of support and more will be necessary to sustain the Karzai regime for even one year after our departure, whether that regime is led by Hamid Karzai himself or an aligned successor. Despite President Karzai’s shortcomings, this should be our short-term objective, as his continued reign will buy time for Afghan society to stabilize and to prevent the re-establishment of an al-Qaida safe haven while the United States continues to decimate that organization around the world.

With inputs by Whitney Kassel.

– Jack Devine

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