America needs an Afghan strategy, not an alibi

By Henry A. Kissinger
Thursday, June 24, 2010

I supported President Obama's decision to double American forces in Afghanistan and continue to support his objectives. The issue is whether the execution of the policy is based on premises that do not reflect Afghan realities, at least within the deadline that has been set.

The central premise is that, at some early point, the United States will be able to turn over security responsibilities to an Afghan government and national army whose writ is running across the entire country. This turnover is to begin next summer.

Neither the premise nor the deadline is realistic.

Afghanistan has never been pacified by foreign forces. At the same time, the difficulty of its territory combined with the fierce sense of autonomy of its population have historically thwarted efforts to achieve a transparent central government.

The argument that a deadline is necessary to oblige President Hamid Karzai to create a modern central government challenges experience. What weakens transparent central governance is not so much Karzai's intentions, ambiguous as they may be, but the structure of his society, run for centuries on the basis of personal relationships. Demands by an ally publicly weighing imminent withdrawal to overthrow established patterns in a matter of months may prove beyond any leader's capacities.

Every instinct I have rebels against this conclusion. But it is essential to avoid the debilitating domestic cycle that blighted especially the Vietnam and Iraq wars, in which the public mood shifted abruptly -- and often with little relation to military realities -- from widespread support to assaults on the adequacy of allies to calls for an exit strategy with the emphasis on exit, not strategy.

Afghanistan is a nation, not a state in the conventional sense. The writ of the Afghan government is likely to run in Kabul and its environs, not uniformly in the rest of the country. The attainable outcome is likely to be a confederation of semi-autonomous, regions configured largely on the basis of ethnicity, dealing with each other by tacit or explicit understandings. American counterinsurgency strategy -- no matter how creatively applied -- cannot alter this reality.

All this leaves only a narrow margin for the American effort. We are needed to bring about the space in which non-jihadist authorities can be established. But if we go beyond this into designing these political authorities, we commit ourselves to a process so prolonged and obtrusive as to risk turning even non-Taliban Afghans against us.

The facile way out is to blame the dilemma on Karzai's inadequacies or to advocate a simple end of the conflict by withdrawing from it.

Yet America needs a strategy, not an alibi. We have a basic national interest to prevent jihadist Islam from gaining additional momentum, which it will surely do if it can claim to have defeated the United States and its allies after overcoming the Soviet Union. A precipitate withdrawal would weaken governments in many countries with significant Islamic minorities. It would be seen in India as an abdication of the U.S. role in stabilizing the Middle East and South Asia and spur radical drift in Pakistan. It would, almost everywhere, raise questions about America's ability to define or execute its proclaimed goals. A militant Iran building its nuclear capacity would assess its new opportunities as the United States withdraws from both Iraq and Afghanistan and is unable to break the diplomatic stalemate over Iran's nuclear program. But an obtrusive presence would, in time, isolate us in Afghanistan as well as internationally.

Afghan strategy needs to be modified in four ways. The military effort should be conducted substantially on a provincial basis rather than in pursuit of a Western-style central government. The time scale for a political effort exceeds by a wide margin that available for military operations. We need a regional diplomatic framework for the next stage of Afghan strategy, whatever the military outcome. Artificial deadlines should be abandoned.

A regional diplomacy is desirable because our interests coincide substantially with those of many of the regional powers. All of them, from a strategic perspective, are more threatened than is the United States by an Afghanistan hospitable to terrorism. China in Sinkiang, Russia in its southern regions, India with respect to its Muslim minority of 160 million, Pakistan as to its political structure, and the smaller states in the region would face a major threat from an Afghanistan encouraging, or even tolerating, centers of terrorism. Regional diplomacy becomes all the more necessary to forestall a neocolonial struggle if reports about the prevalence of natural resources in Afghanistan prove accurate.

Afghanistan becomes an international issue whenever an outside power seeks to achieve unilateral dominance. Inevitably, this draws in other parties to establish a countervailing influence, driving events beyond rational calculation. A regional diplomacy should seek to establish a framework to insulate Afghanistan from the storms raging around it rather than allow the country to serve as their epicenter. It would also try to build Afghanistan into a regional development plan, perhaps encouraged by the Afghan economy's reported growth rate of 15 percent last year.

Military operations could be sustained and legitimized by such diplomacy. In evaluating our options, we must remember that every course will be difficult and that whatever strategy we pursue should be a nonpartisan undertaking. Above all, we need to do justice to all those who have sacrificed in the region, particularly the long-suffering Afghan people.

The writer was secretary of state from 1973 to 1977.

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