How to Exit Afghanistan

How to Exit Afghanistan

A timetable for withdrawal from Afghanistan should set the stage for the military neutralization of the country, says Selig S. Harrison.


With the Taliban growing steadily stronger, 30,000 more US troops will not lead to the early disengagement from the Afghan quagmire envisaged by President Obama, even in the improbable event that Hamid Karzai delivers on his promises of better governance. What is needed is a major United Nations diplomatic initiative designed to get Afghanistan’s regional neighbors to join in setting a disengagement timetable and to share responsibility for preventing a Taliban return to power in Kabul.

The timetable should provide not only for the early withdrawal of all US combat forces within, say, three years but also for the termination of US military access to air bases in Afghanistan within five years. It should set the stage, in short, for the military neutralization of Afghanistan.

A commitment to categorical disengagement has long been demanded by Taliban leaders as the condition for negotiations. It would test whether they are ready for the local peace deals that the Obama administration appears prepared to accept, or will insist on power-sharing in Kabul as the price of peace.

Even without a regional diplomatic framework, such a withdrawal timetable would be desirable and will become increasingly inescapable; but its political risks can be minimized by mobilizing regional support for the political containment of the Taliban.

Russia, India, Iran and Tajikistan all helped the United States to dislodge the Taliban in 2001. All of them, together with China, fear that a resurrected Taliban regime would pose a terrorist threat and would foment domestic Islamist insurgencies within their borders.

Russia faces nascent Islamist forces in its Muslim south. India worries that Taliban control in Kabul would lead to more Pakistan-based attacks like the 2008 one in Mumbai. The Shiite theocracy ruling Iran fears that a Sunni Taliban regime would help the Sunni Jundullah separatist movement in the Iranian part of Baluchistan and Salafi extremists in other non-Persian ethnic minority regions. Tajikistan faces Sunni extremist groups led by Hizb ut-Tahrir and is increasingly unsettled by an influx of Afghan refugees, which could grow if the Taliban return to power. China is beset by Islamist Uighur separatists in Xinjiang.

It is significant that all these neighboring countries are disturbed in varying degree by the expansion of US air bases near their borders; they recognize that no Taliban faction is likely to negotiate peace until the United States and NATO set a timetable that covers both withdrawal of their forces and closure of US bases. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s March 2009 proposal for a regional conference, revived recently by Henry Kissinger, has been ignored by potential participants because it assumes the indefinite continuance of a US military presence.

Iran and India are already giving large-scale economic aid to Kabul. Both might well increase it if US-NATO aid diminishes. New Delhi is helping to train the Afghan police and is prepared to join the United States and NATO in their faltering efforts to train the army.

China might well step up economic aid once the United States departs, as Li Qinggong, deputy secretary general of the China Institute for National Security Studies, hinted in a September 29 statement that also envisioned talks on “how to dispose of the forces of al-Qaeda” if and when the United States disengages and the possible establishment of “an international peacekeeping mission.” Beijing is investing $3 billion in Afghanistan’s Aynak copper mine and is “considering” a US request for help in police training. As members of a regional grouping known as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, all of Afghanistan’s neighbors signed a March 27 statement spelling out detailed action plans for counterterrorism and narcotics control.

The culmination of a UN-led regional diplomatic initiative would be an agreement that would not only set a timetable for military disengagement but would also bar the use of Afghanistan as a base for terrorism and seek to neutralize it as a focus of regional and major power rivalries. The agreement would be signed by the regional neighbors, the United States, NATO and others, like Saudi Arabia, that are playing a role in Afghanistan. Signatories would pledge to respect the country’s neutrality, not to provide arms to warring factions and to cooperate in UN enforcement of an arms aid ban.

Neutrality was Afghanistan’s traditional posture during the decades of the monarchy, until Soviet intervention dragged it into global power rivalries. “The best and most fruitful policy that one can imagine for Afghanistan,” said King Nadir Shah in 1931, “is a policy of neutrality.” The late Zahir Shah continued this policy and expressed his dismay to me when the Bonn Agreement of December 2001, following the ouster of the Taliban, spoke only of “non-interference” and studiously avoided references to “neutrality” and “nonalignment.”

To be sure, one of Afghanistan’s neighbors, its historic adversary Pakistan, created the Taliban and has continued to support it in the hope of establishing an anti-Indian client state in Kabul. But Islamabad would have two powerful reasons for joining in the accord and for stopping its aid. First, India, like other signatories, would be barred from operating out of Afghanistan militarily in the event of an India-Pakistan conflict and from using Afghanistan as a base for supporting Baluch and other ethnic insurgents in Pakistan. Second, the accord would be designed only to prevent the Taliban from re-establishing control in Kabul and using its local strongholds as a base for terrorist operations elsewhere, not to remove all Taliban influence in Afghanistan itself. Thus, Pakistan would still have political allies in future Afghan power struggles.

At present, the United States is dependent on Pakistan as a conduit for shipping supplies to its forces in Afghanistan. Thus, even though Washington gives more than $1 billion a year in military hardware and cash subsidies to the Pakistani army, it has been unable to use the threat of an aid cutoff to curb Pakistan’s aid to the Taliban. Disengagement would free the United States to use its aid leverage. Pressure from China, which provides Islamabad with fighter aircraft, would also help assure Pakistani participation in a regional accord. No UN monitoring system could completely seal off arms aid to the rival Afghan factions or bring an end to the competition between India and Pakistan for influence in Kabul; but a framework for regional cooperation could prevent a return to anarchy and civil war.

The principal obstacle to a regional neutralization accord is likely to be the Pentagon’s desire to have “permanent access” to its network of Afghan bases near the borders of Russia, China, Iran and Central Asia to facilitate intelligence surveillance as well as any future military operations. Some of the seventy-four US bases in Afghanistan have been developed for counterinsurgency operations and might be expendable. But the big airfields at Bagram and Kandahar, which accounted for $425.7 million in the fiscal 2008 Pentagon military construction budget alone, are expected to expand steadily in the years ahead.

President Obama has yet to address the future of the air bases, and until he does, no diplomatic cover for US disengagement will be possible. The underlying issue that he confronts is what an “exit strategy” means and whether the United States will be using Afghanistan to further its global power projection long after he has left office and long after the Taliban and Al Qaeda are forgotten.

Selig S. Harrison is the author, with Diego Cordovez, of Out of Afghanistan and author of In Afghanistan’s Shadow. He is the director of the Asia Program at the Center for International Policy and a senior scholar of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.