How to exit Afghanistan?

Without a substantial NATO security force, the Karzai administration doesn’t stand a chance against the hardened Taliban.

July 14, 2013 21:46
Afghan President Karzai with then-Gen. Petraeus

Afghan President Karzai with then Gen. Petraeus 370 (R). (photo credit: Reuters)

Amid the civil war in Syria, the de facto civil war in Iraq, riots on the Turkish streets and a potential Egyptian civil war in the making, the media tends to under-report the NATO pullout from Afghanistan. But the NATO exit strategy does deserve our careful attention, for it will set the precedent on how the West deals with its enemies.

The general public tends to forget that NATO’s fight against the Taliban was not initially about the Taliban itself, but about the fact that the Taliban harbored elements of Al-Qaida. The essential purpose of the mission was: oust the Taliban and put a regime in place that would never again harbor Al-Qaida.

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But the uncomfortable truth is that every policy think-tank and expert agrees that without a substantial NATO security force, the Karzai administration doesn’t stand a chance against the uniform, hardened and uncorrupt Taliban, once the latter decides to make its move.

First of all, Karzai only exercises “effective” control in Kabul and secondly, his security apparatus is rife with nepotism and diverging ethnic loyalties, and on top of that they are simply inept. Even the Afghan National Army isn’t a national army at all. It is dominated by the Northern Afghan ethnicities and only 2 to 3 percent is of Southern Pashtun descent. So basically the ANA is the former Northern Alliance and indeed, they still patrol with vehicles carrying pictures of Massoud, and even Dostum, one of the most brutal warlords in Afghan history.

One should not underestimate the significance of the fact that the ANA is about as foreign to the South as NATO troops and that Southern Pashtuns are more likely to side with the Taliban than to support the ANA. Make sure to watch the VICE documentary This Is What Winning Looks Like to gain a vivid understanding of the rather ludicrous power structures that NATO has now placed her hopes on for a stable Afghanistan.

It’s no coincidence that even the Pakistani military – engaged in a ferocious battle with the Pakistani Taliban – supports the Afghan Taliban; they know the country will be under their control in the future and they want good ties with the future rulers of Afghanistan, because they want to be able to use the country as strategic depth in case India invades them.

This grim prospect brings us to the following question: is the war lost when the Taliban retakes control of the country? Strangely, the answers is no. The war however is lost when they retake control and again choose to harbor al-Qaida, after all that’s the only reason for the hostilities between NATO and the Taliban.

I’m not an apologist for the Taliban but it is simply realistic to acknowledge that the Taliban are an integral part of Afghan society and that they were the only ones capable of bringing order to a place that from ’89 to ’94 saw more deaths than during 10 years of brutal Soviet occupation. In addition, the Taliban isn’t an international terrorist organization. Its aims have always been national.

As a matter of illustration: in December 1997, with full approval from Washington, a delegation of Taliban officials traveled to Unocal’s headquarters in Sugar Land, Texas, to discuss the building of a pipeline and stayed at Marty Miller’s house, one of the company’s vice presidents.

They were treated royally and were taken to the zoo and the NASA Space Center.

NATO didn’t succeed in destroying the Taliban or their ideology and won’t before its pullout. The Karzai administration will fall unless NATO is prepared to perpetually sacrifice fathers, sons, mothers and daughters we need at home, and spend money that we don’t have.

Yes it’s painful, but a realistic strategy should be based on an Afghanistan under Taliban control.

How can the West try to make sure the Taliban will never again harbor Al-Qaida? There are few certainties in life, but the following strategy might be the only way to fulfill the initial goal of the Afghanistan war: to keep Al-Qaida out of Afghanistan.

Although the Taliban is not destroyed, they have suffered tremendously at the hands of NATO and they know full well that if they ever return to a position of power, NATO will always have the military force to destroy their government and infrastructure in a matter of weeks. The deal the West should make with the Taliban should be as follows: The Taliban will be granted sovereignty over the territory they controlled prior to 2001, but in return will have to pledge they will never again harbor al-Qaida elements.

This framework has a precedent.

Prior to the 2001 invasion the Taliban leader, Mullah Omar, spoke to the US State Department by satellite phone several times to explore the possibility of extraditing Osama bin Laden, in exchange for American recognition of his regime. To no avail, since the US, back then understandably, wanted bin Laden handed over unconditionally.

In this deal the West will have to be extremely clear on one matter and will have to live up to it if need be: as soon as our intelligence services notice that the Taliban breaks its pledge and does harbor Al-Qaida, NATO will return to destroy every last fiber of their infrastructure and kill every senior Taliban figure.

But this time not with a slow and vulnerable invading military apparatus and reconstruction crews, only our air forces, shock troops and special operations units to wreak havoc. No democratization, no reconstruction paid for by the Western taxpayer, just the swift destruction of everything that makes the Taliban capable.

Chances are high that the Taliban will bar al-Qaida in exchange for sovereignty and safety of their regime. If the West doesn’t somehow succeed in creating an al- Qaida-free Afghanistan, all ISAF men and women and Afghan civilians will have been killed or maimed for nothing. Yes, the return of the Taliban will be horrible for women, but you can’t civilize a country through military force. The West is simply out of options.

The author is a Dutch master’s student in clinical psychology and a columnist for the Liberal Conservative weblog De Dagelijkse Standaard.

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