The debate is on about what we should be doing to deal with the challenge of our end point in Afghanistan. Henry Kissinger, believe it or not, adds useful points to this debate in his op-ed in the Washington Post on June 8th. While I have had a number of disagreements with many of HAK’s policies and actions for decades and reviewed two of his “memoir” books for publications, I also need to disclose that I served him while a member of the Secretary’s Policy Planning Staff in the 70s. In that position, I observed the decisions to respond to the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, and later I saw the results of that war on Afghan refugees in the region when I was director of the State’s Office of Asian Refugee Assistance in the 1980s.
I thought then and now that a number of HAK’s policies were, in my view, wrong and even immoral; nevertheless, some of his actions were quite innovative and historic, not least the opening to China and the famous “détente” policy towards the Soviet Union. His mind was always a wonder to watch, including all of its contradictions.
In the case of Afghanistan, Kissinger’s op-ed gives us a look at the region’s landscape now ten years into conflict. He agrees with many analysts that it is not Afghanistan in itself that matters but the region and especially Pakistan and India. He also acknowledges that diplomacy rather than war will be the key instrument for ensuring the best possible conditions for withdrawal. His best contribution here is also his main conditions for a “prudent” withdrawal:
“For negotiation to turn into a viable exit strategy, four conditions must be met: a cease-fire; withdrawal of all or most American and allied forces; the creation of a coalition government or division of territories among the contending parties (or both); and an enforcement mechanism.”
There is good reason for a close and deep examination of America’s role and exit strategy given the length and cost of the war. But given that great cost, prudence in our decisions is also required – as any wise policy analyst must look at the consequences of all options. Kissinger sets the context for his argument by saying: “Still the challenge remains of how to conclude our efforts without laying the groundwork for a wider conflict.”
The other contribution that Kissinger made in his op-ed was to directly address the issue of regional stability and security, which must include the Pakistan-India issue, Iran, and beyond. He is right that Afghanistan could fall prey to increased conflict and internal chaos without the counterbalancing of an internal independent moderating force and agreed political settlement.
Furthermore, a larger regional settlement that does not address the interests of Afghanistan’s neighbors is a recipe for a further disaster in an area that has nuclear weapons.
One problem with his construct is that it initially implies delays in the withdrawal of NATO-US forces in order to provide the leverage for negotiations and make clear to all parties that they must deal with American power and cannot wait out our leaving. The problem is that this could set up a condition by which we would be destined to stay for an undetermined period in the midst of internal conflict, which is also unacceptable. Some players want us out now and others want stability over withdrawal if those were the choices.
I believe that Kissinger exaggerates the negative impact of a quick withdrawal on American global influence as a result of a “perception that the strongest global power has been defeated” and that it “would give an impetus to global and regional jihadism.” He is right that both an internal political settlement and a regional agreement are necessary and that a “multilateral diplomacy,” which brings together common interests, is clearly a better alternative to either an endless “war-war” or an “inexorable withdrawal.” One problem with HAK’s argument is that it fails to adequately address the problem of the Taliban and al-Qaeda both in Afghanistan and in the region and how to turn the former towards cooperation.
There are lots of problems to some of HAK’s specifics, including how to achieve them in the face of historic and growing animosity of the regional powers, which will be a major challenge. But, one can see a common interest by all the concerned players for a stable and fairly secure Afghanistan that threatens no major actor in the region. Further, the idea of some multilateral presence as an enforcement mechanism and, I believe, accompanied by a major effective program of assistance that can provide some real hope of prosperity to the Afghans, might have half a chance.
Kissinger’s concluding statement is also worth thinking about as we continue “Rethinking National Security”:
“After America’s withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan and the constraint to our strategic reach produced by the revolution in Egypt, a new definition of American leadership and America’s national interest is inescapable. A sustainable regional settlement in Afghanistan would be a worthy start.”
That is what we need to be thinking, no matter what the outcome is in Afghanistan or Iraq, since the fundamental global landscape is quickly changing under our feet and in increasingly dangerous ways. In reality, despite the naysayers, American power and influence will endure for generations for either ill or good, and we can be our own worst enemy or the leader towards a better, safer world. If not us and other like minded nations, then who?
By Harry C. Blaney III.