Small World: Afghanistan, the end game

Henry Precht

Henry Precht

By Henry Precht

BN Columnist

The national game of Afghanistan is Buzkashi. Two teams of men on horseback strive, as in polo, to put an object over the goal line. The object is, however, not a ball, but a large, headless goat. The winning team makes the most goat-goals in a stipulated period of time.

Time is about to run out for America’s Buzkashi in Afghanistan. The Obama administration indicates that by the end of 2014 all combat operations will be over. Yet to be decided are the details of winding down our involvement and what happens after December of next year. How do we get the goat over the goal line and then what do we do?

Before estimating the number of troops who might stay behind, we need to agree on their mission(s) and assess the obstacles ahead.

Without doubt, no troops will remain behind unless the Afghan government agrees to grant them legal immunity, i.e., miscreants would be tried in U.S. courts and not exposed to Afghanistan justice.  (Failure of the Iraqi regime to grant a similar Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) meant we abruptly ended that commitment.) The decision-making body will probably be a Loya Jirga — a kind of national assembly of tribal elders and notables from across the country. Their deliberations will tell us a lot about how we are regarded by the populace. Nobody has any illusions: Many Afghans see us as an occupying army, poorly attuned to the culture of a backward, tribal, devoutly Islamic people. Getting through the next year and a half and beyond won’t be easy — as President Karzai regularly reminds us.

Once past the Loya Jirga vote, what might our troops do? Two tasks: (1.) Training and support (intelligence, airlift, medical and other “high end” tasks) for the Afghan army; and (2.) terrorism prevention, i.e., taking out any remaining al-Qaeda cells that threaten our security. Probably 20,000 troops will be needed. A smaller number of civilians should also stay behind to continue the good work they have begun in education, sound governance and development projects.

At that point, the administration will have to think about how much the tight U.S. budget can afford and how much longer public opinion will tolerate extending our longest war in history. It would be a shock to the national morale if we left cold turkey — as we did in Vietnam — without achieving our intended goals. On the other hand, ending the Afghan business might make it easier to accomplish the administration’s unstated desire to slim down the Defense budget.

Then, there is the role of Pakistan whose territory provides safe haven to Taliban fighters and whose government, if willing, can help influence the Taliban into reaching some sort of power-sharing agreement with the Afghan government. That will come with another price tag and political costs for us. Pakistan has its own difficulties with radical Islamic groups, the perceived threat from India and it has nuclear weapons. Handle with care.

Surveying the neighborhood, we shouldn’t discount the role of Iran, which has influence in Afghanistan’s west and with its Shia. Tehran is hardly likely to do us any favors given the poor state of our relations. Some stiff bargaining may lie ahead.

We went into Afghanistan in the emotionally charged moment after 9/11 without much thought about what the country was like and how difficult it would be to change its ways. We should wind down our engagement with a cold, clear understanding of its complex realities. Buzkashi is not a game for amateurs.

Henry Precht is a retired Foreign Service Officer.

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