Finding an alternative path for Afghanistan

Reporter May 2, 2011

The killing of Osama bin Laden, combined with success of drone attacks against lower-level al-Qaeda leaders in Pakistan, have put additional pressure on the Obama administration to find a way to reduce U.S. involvement in Afghanistan.

Walter Pincus reports on intelligence, defense and foreign policy for The Washingon Post. He first came to the paper in 1966 and has covered numerous subjects, including nuclear weapons and arms control, politics and congressional investigations. He was among Post reporters awarded the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting. View Archive

Early in his administration, the president set as his goal “to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda and its safe havens in Pakistan, and to prevent their return to Pakistan or Afghanistan.” It was not, he added, to “rebuild Afghanistan into a Jeffersonian democracy.”

The time has come for the United States and its coalition partners to recognize that Afghanistan has never been centrally governed and begin to focus on a sustainable result that requires a political settlement involving all the internal tribes. That would includea governing role for the conservative Taliban Pashtuns of the south.

That view comes from David Miliband, former British foreign minister and a current Labor member of Parliament. He discussed Afghanistan last week at a Council on Foreign Relations meeting and his presentation deserves wider consideration.

Miliband is concerned that in Afghanistan, 2014 is to mark “an end date, but not an end game,” though “in the popular imagination we have a date for the end of the war.”

Though that is the designated year for all foreign combat troops to be out of Afghanistan, he remarked, “If you read the small print, [it] is not actually the date for all foreign troops to leave. It’s a date for the transition to [Afghan] leadership.”

Miliband’s main point is that the needed political settlement is not one that features control from Kabul. He described Afghanistan as “a country of 40,000 villages and valleys,” where a political settlement needs to be “internal with all the tribes and regional with the neighbors.”

He recognized this would be “an exceedingly complicated process, but until that ‘North Star’ [meaning the political settlement] is established, the military effort, the development effort, the civilian effort, will not be sustainable.”

A beginning step would be the appointment of a U.N. mediator or facilitator from the Muslim world. A second step would be for the coalition — and particularly the United States — to set out its outline of a political settlement. Until that happens, he said, “Every other party to the conflict, [meaning various Taliban groups and neighboring countries] is going to be playing all sides against the middle.”

Over time, he said he fears the situation could worsen, so it requires a council of regional stability to bring the parties together. “It’s only when they’re staring each other in the face that we’re going to get to serious discussion,” he said.

Miliband’s own approach, based on talks with people who have spoken to various branches of the Taliban, is that many of them are stuck in Pakistan at the moment, where it’s “increasingly hot for them there.” They want to come home, he said, but they want to talk to the United States and not just to Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

Miliband mentioned a November 2010 New America Foundation report that outlines how several Kandahar Taliban leaders in 2002 were willing to accept the Karzai government and stay out of politics but were turned down. They went to Pakistan. “And it’s out of those decisions that the Kandahar Taliban was recreated in 2004, 2005 and in some ways we’ve ended up where we are now,” he said.

He mentioned a speech Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton gave in February that called for reconciliation with the Taliban. She said the Taliban had to break with al-Qaeda, renounce violence, and observe the Afghan constitution.

Asked whether he agreed with the requirement of equality of women, included in the constitution and emphasized by Clinton in her speech, Miliband said he believed equal rights for men and women in Afghanistan was an “aspiration.”While it was important “to say that the voice of Afghan women has to be heard,” he said, “I would say to you, we’re not going to be able to force those aspirations to be met at the barrel of a gun.”

As for Taliban reconciliation, Miliband said, “We have to be absolutely clear, I think, that we do see a place for conservative Pashtun in the political settlement, helping govern the south and east of the country.”

Miliband warned that despite current plans to increase the size of the Afghan army and Afghan national police [scheduled to grow to 171,600 and 134,000, respectively, by October this year], no one believes “a centralized Afghan security force is going to have a monopoly of force or a monopoly of power in Afghanistan.”

He does believe there is a sense of an Afghan national identity. He recalled attending the funeral in July 2007 of the last Afghan king, Zahir Shah. “No one who attended that funeral could come away without thinking that there is such a thing as an Afghan national identity. Those were proud Afghans from all the tribes who came there. And it was a very moving experience.”

But Miliband does not believe that automatically translates into accepting a central government.

“Afghanistan is going to be governed by a series of compromises across villages and valleys, formal and informal, state power, non-state power, and that goes with the grain of Afghan society,” he said.

He warned that if we continue to define nation-building in Afghanistan as “building a centralized force . . . we’re never going to come to an end. Afghanistan will never be governed in that way.”

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