The American role in Afghanistan is drawing to a close in a manner paralleling the pattern of three other inconclusive wars since the Allied victory in World War II: a wide consensus in entering them, and growing disillusionment as the war drags on, shading into an intense national search for an exit strategy with the emphasis on exit rather than strategy.
We entered Afghanistan to punish the Taliban for harboring al-Qaeda, which, under Osama bin Laden’s leadership, had carried out the Sept. 11 attacks. After a rapid victory, U.S. forces remained to assist the construction of a post-Taliban state. But nation-building ran up against the irony that the Afghan nation comes into being primarily in opposition to occupying forces. When foreign forces are withdrawn, Afghan politics revert to a contest over territory and population by various essentially tribal groups.
In our national debate, the inconclusive effort was blamed on the diversion of resources to Iraq rather than on its inherent implausibility. The new Obama administration coupled withdrawal from Iraq with a surge of troops and material in Afghanistan — an effort I supported in substance if not in every detail. We have now reached its limit.
The stated goal of creating a government and domestic security structure to which responsibility for the defense of Afghanistan can be turned over is widely recognized as unreachable by 2014, the time most NATO nations have set as the outer limit of the common effort. Polls show that more than 70 percent of Americans believe that the United States should withdraw from Afghanistan.
The quest for an alternative has taken the form — it is widely reported — of negotiations under German sponsorship between representatives of Mullah Omar, the head of the Taliban, and American officials. Most observers will treat this as the beginning of an inexorable withdrawal. The death of bin Laden, while not operationally relevant to current fighting, is a symbolic dividing line. Still, the challenge remains of how to conclude our effort without laying the groundwork for a wider conflict.
For negotiation to turn into a viable exit strategy, four conditions must be met: a cease-fire; withdrawal of all or most American and allied forces; the creation of a coalition government or division of territories among the contending parties (or both); and an enforcement mechanism.
Enforcement is the most crucial element and the most difficult to sustain. After decades of civil war, the parties are unlikely to feel bound by provisions of any agreement. The Taliban especially will try to take over the coalition government or breach the cease-fire. In the absence of a plausible enforcement mechanism, a negotiation with the Taliban, whose forces remain while ours leave, will turn into a mechanism for collapse.
This is particularly the case if negotiations are accompanied by withdrawals amid a public debate over accelerating the process. The more rapid and substantial the immediate withdrawal, the more difficult the negotiating process will be. We must choose our priorities.