This Week at War: Powerless in Kabul?
President Barack Obama’s sudden appearance in Afghanistan on May 1, a calculated attempt to display his administration’s foreign-policy expertise and showcase his plan for ending U.S. involvement in that country’s war, was overshadowed by another drama in Beijing, the U.S. Embassy’s fumbling of Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng. The global attention directed on the Chen affair showed that U.S. presidents sometimes have less power than they might presume to dominate the news. Obama and his advisors are similarly assuming that they will have the power to steer Afghanistan toward the slimmed-down objectives that remain for the U.S. campaign there. That assumption may be just as flimsy.
Obama and his advisors believe that a long-term public commitment to Afghanistan, combined with a steady drawdown of U.S. troops, will keep Afghan powerbrokers on their side, convince the Taliban and Pakistan to cooperate, and, perhaps most importantly, show the U.S. public that the troops are on their way home. What remains to be seen is whether Obama and his team will have as much long-term influence over events in the region as they assume they will. There are some reasons to expect that they won’t. If that’s the case, Afghanistan will remain a burden on the next administration and the U.S. Army for many more years.
While in Afghanistan, Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai signed a strategic partnership agreement, which outlines a plan for cooperation through 2024. Although vague and recognizing that future U.S. congresses and policymakers will make their own decisions regarding Afghanistan, the agreement, combined with a commitment of support from NATO at its upcoming summit in Chicago, may influence the calculations of allies and adversaries alike. In addition, U.S. policymakers are haunted by the chaos that descended on Afghanistan after the United States walked away in 1990 in the wake of the mujahedeen triumph over the Soviet army. Obama and his team apparently assume that if they do the opposite, they will also get an opposite, and more favorable, result.
In his speech at Bagram Air Base, Obama attempted to explain how modest, and therefore feasible, his objectives are for a country so famous at spoiling the designs of outsiders. Obama said, “Our goal is not to build a country in America’s image, or to eradicate every vestige of the Taliban. These objectives would require many more years, many more dollars, and most importantly, many more American lives. Our goal is to destroy al Qaeda, and we are on a path to do exactly that.” But sustaining this seemingly modest objective within Afghanistan’s territory would seem to require a functional Afghan national government over the long term. A strong central government is a somewhat alien concept to Afghan history and U.S. plans based on such an assumption may prove fragile.
The success of the agreement is also entirely dependent on the quality of the relationships between the U.S. and Afghan leaders over the next decade. The recent trend in this regard is not encouraging. Karzai’s behavior over the past few years reveals a man whose political survival seems dependent on ever-increasing anti-Americanism. Karzai’s replacement, assuming the country can find one not objectionable to its ethnic factions, will very likely face the same internal pressure Karzai feels. The United States has other functioning transactional relationships with leaders from viscerally anti-American societies. But Afghanistan is now a higher visibility case inside the United States. The U.S. public and Congress, which will be asked to finance substantial assistance to an erratic and avowedly anti-American leader, may find their patience wearing thin in the years ahead. If Afghanistan’s central government weakens or becomes too difficult to support, the strategic framework agreement’s value will have expired. At that point, the United States will need a backup plan.