Mar 25, 2009

No easy exit?

President Obama has now started the 'long goodbye' to Afghanistan. There are 34,000 American troops currently there, plus a rainbow of forces from NATO countries. The Taliban – who were not defeated in 2001, they simply went back to their homes – are resurgent, and have in the south and east of the country fought the coalition forces into a stalemate. The Karzai government is monstrously corrupt. Karzai himself is regarded as weak and unable to take a position, unable to confront unpleasant realities - and elections loom. The good news is that elections are happening at all, the bad news is that there is no other presidential candidate who is likely to be any better at the job than Karzai; and indications are that all the alternatives would be significantly worse. Against this background the Obama administration is working to put together what is nowadays called 'the Af-Pak strategy'. A part of that may be the creation of the post of prime minister in Afghanistan which, it is hoped, may dilute the powers of Karzai – but there is no guarantee that the PM would enjoy any better relationship with the premier than does our own. Weakness at the centre has been a consistent feature of Afghan governance for generations, and there is little or no likelihood of strength returning to the centre whoever gets elected. With Pakistan and Afghanistan now joined at the hip in terms of American strategic thinking in the region and a planned US 'surge' of 17,000 troops in Afghanistan in the near future; the need for an exit strategy is ever more urgent as 'drift' is nowhere on the Obama agenda. But surges and diplomatic engagement in Kabul and Islamabad are unlikely to produce the same results as in Iraq – where after seven years a semblance of stability is returning and honourable exit a real possibility. The two countries are like chalk and cheese, and what 'fixes' one may not 'fix' the other. Military might alone is clearly not a winner in Afghanistan, and it is going to take the politicization of the Taliban to radically alter both their own direction as well as that in which Afghanistan is headed. Their participation in the coming election could be a step in the right direction – for us as well as for them.

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