In Afghanistan, most roads lead to civil war

Dexter Filkins has lengthy article in the New Yorker about what likely is in store for Afghanistan once the U.S. completes the withdrawal of its combat troops. He writes:

After eleven years, nearly two thousand Americans killed, sixteen thousand Americans wounded, nearly four hundred billion dollars spent, and more than twelve thousand Afghan civilians dead since 2007, the war in Afghanistan has come to this: the United States is leaving, mission not accomplished. Objectives once deemed indispensable, such as nation-building and counterinsurgency, have been abandoned or downgraded, either because they haven’t worked or because there’s no longer enough time to achieve them. Even the education of girls, a signal achievement of the NATO presence in Afghanistan, is at risk. By the end of 2014, when the last Americans are due to stop fighting, the Taliban will not be defeated. A Western-style democracy will not be in place. The economy will not be self-sustaining. No senior Afghan official will likely be imprisoned for any crime, no matter how egregious. And it’s a good bet that, in some remote mountain valley, even Al Qaeda, which brought the United States to Afghanistan in the first place, will be carrying on.

What comes after that? The most likely outcome, says Filkins, is civil war. Only the Afghan army is capable of perhaps preventing one. But the Afghan army is fractured along ethnic lines and still poorly prepared for significant combat duty. Once the threats of civil war and/or significant advances by the Taliban loom large, Filkins expects large scale defections from the Afghan army, leading to its demise as a force capable of preventing civil war.

The Obama administration hopes that an “enduring” Western presence will insure that the Afghan Army stays together, protects Kabul, and holds critical cities and roads. But Filkins questions whether the Americans can remove themselves entirely from fighting in little more than two years and expect the country to hold together. There is also the question of who will fund the Afghan army. Afghanistan apparently cannot afford to do it, so America will continue to provide funds. But according to Filkins, the Obama administration (should it still be in place) intends to provide financing that will entail a reduction in Afghan security forces after 2014, just as the need for strong forces becomes more acute.

Filkins considers the Obama administration’s strategy “an enormous gamble, propelled by a sense of political and economic fatigue.” Obama appears to share this view, which is why he has been seeking an agreement with the Taliban. But a deal with the Taliban would not reduce the prospect of civil war. On the contrary, if the Taliban are left armed and recognized as the legitimate controllers of the south, the likelihood of civil war and the eventual partition of Afghanistan increases.

It’s unlikely that President Obama cares very much about any of this. For him, Afghanistan was always a domestic political problem, above all. He solved it through the substantively inane, but politically savvy approach of a surge coupled with a pre-determined withdrawal date.

Now, thanks in no small part to this policy, a majority of Americans are satisfied with Obama as a foreign policy and anti-terrorism president. So, although objectively Afghanistan may be, in Filkins’ words, a case of “mission not accomplished,” Obama has largely accomplished his mission there.

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