End Game

End Game in Afghanistan?


Some journalists say the “end game” in Afghanistan has begun.

And maybe so, if  “end game” is defined as a process that can go on for decades. There is, in any case, lots of chatter now about a negotiated settlement to the war. Karzai has convened 68 “elders” and leaders from around the country to a “High Peace Council” in Kabul, to hammer out a plan for making peace with the Taliban.

Another whole set of negotiations has apparently been under way in Kabul for some time—unofficial, back-channel, informal—oh hell, let’s just go ahead and call them secret—talks between Karzai’s representatives and various “Taliban” elements whoever that label refers to.

Apparently, the secret meetings with “the Taliban” have taken place in Kabul’s fancy four-star hotel, the Serena. Both sides have stoutly denied any such meetings, but recently both sides have aknowledged that, yeah, someone has talked with someone about something. Bottom line: there have been talks.

Also, Taliban spokesmen have now hinted publicly that they might negotiate. As with the early stages of all such negotiations, both sides are stating preconditions that amount to the other side giving up. Taliban agents say talks only after all foreign troops have left and the Shari’a is accepted as basis of the legal code can talks begin. The Karzai government and its foreign sponsors generally say that talks can begin only after the Taliban lay down their arms, accept the Afghan constitution (and all the women’s and ethnic rights and democratic apparatus enshrined therein) and accept the presence of foreign troops.

No one need suppose, however, that talking won’t actually begin without one side’s preconditions being met. All these terms and preconditions are posturing. No one wants to go into talks looking weak.

Afghanistan Without America

The flurry of activity did get me to pondering, however. What would happen if American and NATO troops actually did pull out of Afghanistan completely, soon, and with all due speed?

I don’t say this will or should happen. I only say: “What if?”


Conventional wisdom says a bloodbath will break out the moment foreign troops leave. I think CW is right this time. But will a continued NATO and American presence prevent a bloodbath or only postpone it?  That’s the real question.  And if it is only postponed, will the bloodbath be less bloody or more so?

Some people say the development of women’s right has momentum now and cannot be stopped, even if America leaves. If they favor withdrawal, they have to say this, because the dire straits of Afghan women under the Taliban provided an emotional justification for sending in the troops. It would be very difficult for Americans to support an American withdrawal that amounts to the abandonment of the people we came to save and results in terrible consequences for them. It’s easier to say, right now, “The women will be fine,” and then afterward to say, “Who could have predicted?”

But it’s pointless, I think, to seek refuge in cheering falsehoods. If the Islamist reactionaries take power in Afghanistan, women will suffer grievously, in part because the underlying circumstances for women have not improved. Time Magazine recently ran a cover photo of a girl whose father had cut off her nose to punish her for some disobedience. That man’s attitudes are still rife in rural Afghanistan. What’s more, in the American era, many brave women have taken dangerous public stands. Their names and faces have been recorded. If the reactionaries take power, they will know who to go after and where to find them.

On the Other Hand…

Those who point to the Time magazine cover and say, “Here’s what will happen if America leaves” need to remember. America hasn’t left yet, but this happened anyway. How many crimes like this have gone unreported? We don’t know.  America and NATO have 150,000 troops in Afghanistan,  few would advocate sending more; but Afghanistan has 30 million people, and most of the country is inaccessible.

The only real protection for Afghan women is a positive change in Afghan values and institutions. Is America’s presence promoting such a change or provoking a backlash that retards it?  That’s the real question, and on that question, I think, the jury is still out.

To my mind, a confrontation between Afghans and Afghans is coming. America and NATO can on postpone it but not prevent it. There are many things Americans can do in Afghanistan–garrison troops anywhere, re-supply them, bomb any building or village.

But there are things America can’t do in Afghanistan. Govern the country, for example. That’s a truism, hardly worth mentioning. That’s why America has established an “Afghan” government to govern the country.

What America Can’t Do

The trouble is, whenever Afghans sense a foreign will trying to govern them, they respond by becoming ungovernable. The real question therefore is: “Can America stop Afghans from becoming ungovernable?”

No. That achievement, I think, is beyond American power. In fact, America’s continued presence is only tending to make Afghans less governable. That’s why, over the last four years, the areas under “Taliban control” have increased. More troops has led to more sabotage and more violence in more parts of Afghanistan. The supposed expansion of Taliban “control” is actually an expansion of ungovernability. Of less “control.”  By anyone.

But here’s the thing: someone can govern Afghanistan. Not NATO, not America, but someone–some Afghan. If all foreign forces leave, a battle will break out among the country’s many factions and forces, and out of this turmoil someone will emerge.

Whoever it is, this someone will not be a nice guy. He will be the meanest, toughest pit-bull in the yard. But he will also be an astute politician, a cunning diplomat, and a brilliant strategist–because ruthless, tough, and mean won’t be enough. All the contenders will have that. The winner will have to be all that plus—something more.

Karzai a Goner?

Conventional wisdom says Hamid Karzai will last about nine minutes after foreign forces leave, but I say: do not rule this guy out. Over the last nine years, he’s proved himself a street fighter. People deride him as the mayor of Kabul, but who in Afghanistan is much more? Critics dismiss him too quickly as a leader with no legitimacy. He may not have much legitimacy, but who in Afghanistan has more?

And Karzai, believe it or not, does have some legitimacy. This fact has escaped foreign pundits because his legitimacy is not based on elections. Won or stolen, elections don’t mark people as leaders in Afghanistan. Foreign money and military are undeniable factors and elections are the game Afghans have to play to gain access to those resources. Those are the rules as set by the foreign powers who control the resources. But the legitimacy comes from what the winners do after they’ve gained access to those resources. That’s when the Afghan political processes come into play, and that’s where legitimacy is built or lost.

All these years, Karzai has been preparing for the American departure by playing the Afghan political game right alongside the elections game. The Afghan game consists of building networks of personal connections–through patronage, manipulation, the creation of obligations through favors, strategic marriage alliances, coercion, tribal back channel negotiations, and so on. Much of this is what outsiders call corruption. From to time Karzai appeases his foreign critics with cosmetic maneuvers, but he cannot actually crack down on “corruption” because his political future and very life may depend on continuing to do what he’s been doing. And he has a far-flung network now: how effective it is, we won’t know until the fighting begins.

Could Be Worse

On the other hand, a lot of players have a shot at winning the post-American-withdrawal battle. If I had to bet, I’d put my money on Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, and I’d hate to win that bet, because Hekmatyar is the embodiment of not-nice. He is, in fact, one of the darkest figures ever to stalk the country. If I were religious, I’d characterize him as Satan incarnate.  But–in addition to ruthless, tough, and cruel he’s politically savvy, an organizer, and a brilliant strategist.

If he comes out on top, the Taliban era will be remembered as one of the more liberal periods of Afghan history. Yet he or someone like him might be the only sort of force that can pull Afghanistan together and make it governable. The man who forged Afghanistan into a nation-state, the 19th century king Abdu’rahman, was a frightening figure but he … got the job done. 

One thing is certain about any future Abdu’rahman.  He’ll govern from a nativist and Islamic ideology.  But Islamic isn’t necessarily Islamist or Jihadist.  In fact, this future nation-builder might well be content to turn Afghanistan into a fortress and simply rule that castle. He will be Pushtoonist, so the Hazaras will suffer, the Tajiks will be crying, and the Uzbeks will withdraw sullenly to the north and hope to ride it out. Women will be driven back into the compounds to bide their time. It’s a grim picture, but this might be best outcome we can hope for—in the near term.

But only in the near term, because the future ruler of Afghanistan, even if it’s a Hekmatyar, will turn into a developmental modernist once he’s got the throne. He’ll want weapons and roads and factories. For this he’ll need money and protection. He’ll do what all successful Afghan regimes have done: he’ll make a political policy out of non-alignment. He’ll play China against the U.S.  against Iran  against a resurgent Russia. He’ll see what funds he can squeeze out of every side by constantly threatening to tilt this way or that way—and he’ll be as friendly to the United States as to any other power.

Within the fortress state of a sovereign future Afghanistan, change will continue to gather, because the reactionary impulse embodied by people like Hekmatyar and the various Taliban groups is only one strand of Afghan society. Historically, a modernist, progressive impulse is in there too, and it won’t be denied just because one day’s battle has been lost. Even if the West pulls out, the war for the soul of Afghanistan will continue.

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