The Magazine

How to Win the Peace in Afghanistan

America needs to stay the course.

Jul 1, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 41 • By ELIE D. KRAKOWSKI
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WINNING THE PEACE in Afghanistan is not optional. It is a national necessity. Early American military victories, the current low level of fighting, and the recent completion of the loya jirga, or council of elders, all have contributed to a false sense of progress evident both in official U.S. statements and in the media. There is also, however, a growing discomfort, an as yet unarticulated perception that all is not well on the Afghan front.

The reality is that the situation is both worse and better than is often realized. Worse, because if current policies remain unchanged, we stand to lose all the gains achieved thus far, with Afghanistan plunged into a chaos worse than before. Better, because a stable, long-term settlement is within reach if we are willing to adopt a comprehensive strategy designed to help bring it about. To be sure, even if we are willing, this won't be easy. The key to a lasting solution lies outside the borders of Afghanistan, in the involvement of the surrounding countries and in unflagging, careful leadership from the United States.

Already, as the first major theater in the war on terror, Afghanistan has acquired enormous significance. Anything short of a decisive and complete victory would make further progress in the war on terror far more difficult if not impossible. If the United States does not have the will to stay the course in Afghanistan, why should terrorists and their sponsors believe that it will have it elsewhere?

Moreover, Washington is not operating from a blank slate in this domain. Its reputation for jumping in and out of crises is well known. Afghans and others in the region remember only too well how quickly the United States forgot about Afghanistan once Soviet troops left in 1989.

Although the situation now is vastly different, the same strong desire to finish the job and get out has been evident from the beginning. Even before military operations wound down, the United States was intimating that it wanted to withdraw and turn over the shaping and management of the country's reconstruction to others. The fact that military operations are taking longer than some anticipated has not altered that fundamental urge.

Certainly many in the region believe the United States will not remain engaged in Afghanistan for the long haul. As one diplomat put it, "Once the Americans believe they are finished with al Qaeda, the media will leave; and once that happens, the U.S. government will lose interest." Such views are reinforced by a broader questioning of American seriousness in the pursuit of the war on terror. Writing during the U.S. bombing in Afghanistan, a retired Pakistani general, former head of military intelligence (ISI) and currently Pakistan's ambassador to Saudi Arabia, described Washington as acting in anger. And, he said, when America is angry others should be ready to duck. But the anger will pass, and then everyone can continue as before.

Success in Afghanistan is important, however, not solely because the United States has invested its military might and honor there. It is also crucial to the peace and independence of the surrounding states--for the same Islamist terrorists who targeted the Twin Towers and the Pentagon dream of creating an Islamist empire across a swath of Asia

Strategically insignificant on its own, Afghanistan has been a bone of contention between empires. And it still is. It is this characteristic--that it sparks the desires of outsiders--that continues to dominate today. This is why any settlement of Afghanistan's massive problems has little chance of success unless it addresses adequately the regional context.

Contenders for control over Afghanistan in the nineteenth century were the British and Russian empires. In the second half of the twentieth there was a southward thrust by the Soviets (1979-1989), followed by an attempted northward thrust by the Pakistanis after the Soviet troop withdrawal and the collapse of the Soviet Union (1991-2001).

It was this second attempt to control Afghanistan from the outside that served to destabilize not just that country but also all those around it, a process that has not yet been brought to an end. And it is that destabilization that would be measurably increased should the United States fail in Afghanistan, with catastrophic consequences for all concerned.

Pakistan realized early on that the Afghans are not easily controlled. Its solution was to use Afghan Islamist leaders as Pakistani proxies. The Pakistanis' reasoning was simple: Extremist Muslims had never had any real popular support in Afghanistan and would need Islamabad's help not just to seize power, but also to hold it. The Taliban, whose leadership was made up of at best semi-literate individuals, inexperienced and incompetent in managing the affairs of state, was but the latest of Pakistan's unfortunate selections.

After initial successes due far more to the Afghans' exhaustion from war and thirst for peace than to any military prowess of the Taliban, that radical movement proved unable to achieve military victory. The ensuing stalemate led to a gradual takeover of the Taliban by a combination of Wahhabi Muslims from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, Pakistani Islamists, and an assortment of extremists from many countries (Uzbeks, Chechens, Chinese Uighurs, and others). Among all of these, it was Osama bin Laden, who arrived in Afghanistan in 1996, and his al Qaeda organization that dominated and soon came to be the key decision-makers in what passed as Taliban edicts in the outside world.

Many of the Taliban's notorious deeds--the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas, the scorched earth policy followed in some northern provinces, numerous massacres--were actually attributable to bin Laden and his Arabs. Afghanistan had become a global terrorism headquarters, training people from around the world in its over 30 terrorist camps. The objective shared by this rainbow coalition of extremists was the spread of the Wahhabi brand of radical Islam. Pakistani Islamists openly proclaimed their desire to replace the Pakistani government with one in the image of the Taliban. With regard to China, the aim was to create an independent Islamist state in the western Chinese border province of Xinjiang. The ultimate ambition was an Islamist empire extending from Pakistan in the south through Afghanistan and including the states of Central Asia.

That these goals were publicly and repeatedly declared did not mean that Washington so much as noticed them. The United States, almost until the end, continued to view events in Afghanistan through the Pakistani lens. Even Afghanistan's neighbors at first paid little attention, although the newly independent states of Central Asia, aware of their own fragility, were the first to sense the danger. From 1998 onward, as evidence mounted of the terrorist networks' extensive penetration, the regional governments became increasingly anxious. By 2000, high officials and other influential personalities in all the surrounding states including Iran saw not the Taliban but bin Laden and his Arab cohorts as the problem. In an extensive series of interviews in the region in 2000 and 2001, they told me that they did not know what to do, and that only the United States could break the logjam.

THE SITUATION in the summer of 2002 remains very serious and the risks high. Continuing sweeps by U.S. and British Special Forces have managed to keep the terrorist groups off-balance. But the inability to actually find al Qaeda or Taliban forces does not mean they are absent, only that the war has entered a hit-and-run phase. There is growing evidence that the terrorist forces have moved into Pakistan, which may be well on the way to becoming their new haven.

While they are apparently concentrated in the largely ungoverned North-West Frontier Province, there are also reports of al Qaeda and Taliban in Pakistani cities. Add the tens of thousands of armed Pakistani Islamists and their allies within the Pakistani government and armed forces, and the explosive nature of the mix becomes even clearer. Heightened violence including suicide bombers within Pakistan is likely, as are similar attacks in Afghanistan.

In addition, Afghanistan's neighbors appear to have resumed their old pattern of divisive intervention in anticipation of U.S. disengagement. While not yet fully certain this will occur, they are preparing for it by making sure they don't leave the field to others, and attempting to maximize their individual positions within the country.

They have been arming their favorite factions and otherwise encouraging ethnic and tribal confrontation. The Iranians, who once restricted their backing to Afghan Shiite groups, for several years have backed the Northern Alliance forces that continue to dominate the interim Afghan government. The Russians and Uzbeks have also backed the Northern Alliance. Elements within the Pakistani government continue to support their traditional favorites, the majority Pashtuns. Very active at the regional and local level, these neighbors remain somewhat cautious at the national level. They have shown some flexibility, while making sure of the continued dominance of the Northern Alliance forces in the new interim government.

Of these neighbors, Iran is the one whose behavior is the most disturbing. It has not limited its actions to interference within Afghanistan, but is actively (and with regard to Middle Eastern terrorist groups, openly) supporting and training terrorist groups in Central Asia, notably the Uzbek IMU.

IT IS UNDER these difficult circumstances that we must win the peace. First and most important, we must fully realize our own strength. We need to shed the self-doubt that seems to accompany every decision entailing a modicum of risk. The Pakistani general quoted above revealed something telling: When President Bush stated America's objective as the elimination of terrorism, when he said that states had a choice to be with us or against us, and when the United States attacked in Afghanistan, people were afraid. When the president identified an "axis of evil" and warned states sympathetic to it that they would become targets unless they changed their ways, they believed he might be serious.

Subsequent American behavior has raised some doubts. Perhaps the Pakistani general was right. Perhaps America acted only from anger, and anger is difficult to sustain. What is needed is not anger. It is will, applied to a reasoned, calculated strategy designed to achieve results in the conditions that now confront us.

Americans may still not fully realize the extent of the dangers at hand. The states surrounding Afghanistan are keenly aware of them. If anything the events of September11 have increased their desire for a strong American role. While they are wary of a continued U.S. presence in the region and a pro-American Afghanistan, those concerns compete with their continuing fears of al Qaeda and the global Islamist movement. These states have no difficulty visualizing the destruction of the Taliban and the rout of al Qaeda in Afghanistan as leading merely to the relocation of the Islamist forces elsewhere in and near Central Asia.

The Afghans themselves are not the stumbling block to a lasting peace and reconstruction. They are tired of fighting and willing to come to terms with each other. But Afghans, like everyone else on the planet, compete for power and influence. And when external assistance directed to individual ethnic or tribal groups is plentiful and forthcoming, there is little reason to expect that they will refrain from taking advantage of it.

An effective settlement, therefore, must rechannel the continuing interference of Afghanistan's neighbors in more constructive directions. And to do this entails a central and continuing American role. The United States is the only power capable of materially affecting outcomes, and as an outsider to the region, it is also the most appropriate for the role.

As I have argued elsewhere in more detail, a comprehensive strategy for winning the peace in Afghanistan would create a web of interactions to achieve the following objectives: (1) ensure that the United States remains involved in the region over the long term, (2) convincingly demonstrate to the states of the region that it will so remain, (3) place the United States in a position to press and enforce its views, or at least to act as a balancer among competing regional interests, and (4) minimize the ability of regional states to do mischief and to assist individual Afghan factions or groups.

The best way--probably the only way--of accomplishing these ends is to institutionalize in a more coherent framework what is now a haphazard set of individual and bilateral interactions. For that purpose, two separate bodies should be created.

The first, a Concert of States, would be a small group made up of the United States, Afghanistan, its neighbors (Pakistan, Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, China), Russia, and possibly India, which has a history of involvement in Afghanistan. Periodic high-level meetings of the members would be supplemented by the creation of a smaller body composed of a special envoy for Afghanistan from each member state. The Concert would define, guarantee, and help to maintain an Afghan settlement. It would deal with all the substantive issues to arise in conjunction with an Afghan settlement and help make developments in the region more visible and open. While rechanneling the involvement of regional states, it would also lessen their fear of being somehow excluded as players on the Afghan scene.

Because the needs of Afghan reconstruction are so great, a much larger grouping of states is also required. This second body, a Reconstruction and Development Conference, would include the states willing and able to contribute financially to Afghan reconstruction. Created for a period of five to ten years and designed to lapse unless extended by a two-thirds vote, the Conference would review needs, accept pledges, and oversee the progress of reconstruction. Here as well, periodic high-level meetings of donor states would be supplemented by the creation of a small secretariat designed to ensure continuity of involvement in Afghanistan and to prepare for the high-level meetings. Again, the larger the number of states involved and the greater their interest in what happens in the region, the less the chance that any of the neighboring states could engage in mischief.

The internal dimension of an Afghan settlement is obviously no less crucial than the international aspect, and needs to be dealt with concurrently. The chief objective here is to ensure that Afghans are in fact free to decide for themselves the exact shape of their system and how they want to govern themselves. On this as on many other issues, the rhetoric has often been at variance with the reality.

This does not mean that the outside world must refrain from insisting on certain fundamental requirements, only that it should refrain from seeking to impose its own particular values. Thus, we must be unyielding on representative government but not on the particular Western form of it. Respect for human rights and internationally recognized standards also must be insisted upon. A serious concern among Afghan minorities is the protection of ethnic groups. While there clearly need to be safeguards on this subject, Afghans--especially those drafting a new constitution--must be brought to understand that protecting individual rights ensures group rights, while the opposite is not true.

Similarly, no compromise is possible on the participation in the new government of leaders guilty of gross crimes in the past. The Islamists Abdul Rassoul Sayyaf and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, for example, must at all costs be excluded. They personify the dangers to Afghanistan from meddlesome neighbors, dependent as they are on Saudi and Pakistani funding.

At present, however, even more urgent than the founding principles of government is the issue of security. Its continuing lack within the country seriously endangers progress toward national reconstruction and even toward a stable and effective government.

The building of a national army will take time. Some have argued with passion that interim security can be provided by a major expansion of the international security force now limited to Kabul. A better, more economical and effective way to fulfill this interim security need would be to place small numbers of U.S. Special Forces in key towns, and increase further roving patrols. Afghans are very impressed with American power, methods, and presence, and have themselves said that small numbers of Americans have a big impact. Some have told me that even the overflight of an American bomber has a soothing effect.

The strategy suggested here is realistic and feasible. That does not mean there are no obstacles to overcome--of which Iran is probably the most conspicuous. The problem is not so much whether Tehran would be willing to join the proposed Concert of States. It is rather that Iran's active and open sponsorship of terrorist groups far and wide makes its adherence distasteful and its trustworthiness nil. The Iranian government must be confronted on these issues. Washington should make it clear that unless Tehran undertakes to change its behavior, it will not be included. The United States should point out that for a state that has a fairly large non-Iranian population within its borders it is particularly dangerous to encourage subversion in others. Two could play the same game. Last but not least, the establishment of the Concert of States without Iran would increase the regime's isolation and thereby further heighten incentives to alter its behavior.

In the final analysis, success in the war on terror, not just in Afghanistan but elsewhere as well, depends on an assertion of will, informed by a recognition that there is no such thing as risk-free foreign policy or national defense. A determined America--conveying to Afghanistan and the surrounding countries its steadfastness, while seeking their contribution within the context of a strategic framework clear to all--is far more likely to succeed than a reactive America secretly pining to go home.

Elie D. Krakowski is a senior fellow at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and at the American Foreign Policy Council, which recently published his monograph "Ending War in Afghanistan: The Opportunity Within Adversity."