Kissinger and Afghanistan and Regional Strategy

Kissinger some five months ago wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post (June 7, 20011) giving his approach to an exit strategy from Afghanistan. I commented on that article here on June 13th.  I agreed with his basic premise that there was a need to try for a diplomatic and regional solution to ensure long term stability and prevent worse conflicts in the region. (See Kissinger and the Exit Strategy from Afghanistan for my comments then.)

On November 1st the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington hosted a discussion of our Afghanistan strategy which I attended, that featured Secretary Kissinger in person along with a panel of experts. Kissinger again argued for a regional diplomatic solution and argued that trying to establish a democratic and modern society in Afghanistan was beyond our reach. Other panelists gave alternative views which, frankly, were discouraging in regards to demonstrating that there were participants from the region willing to play our diplomatic game.

Most on the panel agreed that Pakistan was the key actor but that other regional players were necessary or potentially helpful to ensure an outcome acceptable to all and in which they would have an interest to protect.

The problem that some participants pointed out was that it appeared increasingly that Pakistan had no interest in following an American led restructure and deal, and indeed neither did the Taliban or al-Qaeda. These latter groups are not ethnic or political groups seeking a fair role in a democratic polity or even seeking compromise with those whom they consider to be their enemies including the present Afghan government.  Their chosen instrument is deadly force, suicide, and mindless terrorism. Their perspective is religious fanaticism and unrelenting brutality. Even when they were in power, brutal force was used on those who did not share their view of society.  We must expect that even after we leave Afghanistan, acts of terrorism will continue.

The challenge, in my view, is to change the “playing board” rules in such a way that Pakistan recognizes it can’t gain its key objectives by the use of terrorist surrogates. One way, which we are trying without enough heft and too much acquiescence, is to prop up the indefeasible and inept Karzai regime. The other is to find a better model by “impeachment” of Karzai and his henchmen and replacing him with an honest and able government of technocrats and administrators to form a new “national government” of all the leading regions and ethnic groups. Failing or rejecting that large, risky task, we should not let another American die to help a rotten regime.

America’s strategy so far has proved that, even with the surge – which did produce some very limited gains – American and other foreign military forces can’t gain long-term stable security or even a non-corrupt Afghan government able to maintain security or make peace. We have paid a massive price for an effort to achieve these goals, and in some ways lost ground supporting a hated, crooked regime in Kabul.

The problem is that over time our capacity to induce powers in the region to follow our lead has diminished. This is not due to our military withdrawal, which was inevitable, but rather to fundamental shifts in assessments of self-interest, and especially Pakistan’s desire to destroy not only Western and Indian influence in the region but to supplant it via the bloody instrument of al-Qaeda and Pakistani supported terrorist groups rather than via a “regional” accommodation. There needs to be a compromise in which all sides gain some but also permit others to play a balancing role.  The “alignment of forces” indicates that regional countries simply are playing a “zero sum game.” Pakistan believes it can pick up all the marbles after we leave and need not share the “spoils.” The same may be true of Iran and China.

The conundrum remains of how to withdraw from a war that we can’t “win” fully and which continuing would cost more than any likely outcome so long as the Afghan landscape continues to foster a corrupt government and terrorism sanctuaries, which ensure a costly stalemate on the ground.  Yet we still have a responsibility to try to create some framework both within Afghanistan and in the region which might sustain some measure of security for the region and contain the violence.

At the end of the panel discussion Sec. Kissinger said one overarching concern was that the political debate and culture in America had become so polarized that finding common ground in foreign policy discussions in terms of even goals – let alone tactics and process – seemed to be impossible and is a major roadblock towards America being effective in facing its global challenges.

By Harry C. Blaney III.

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