Henry Kissinger, who knows a bit about bailing out of unpopular wars, writes about how the US can get out of Afghanistan.
The American role in Afghanistan is drawing to a close in a manner paralleling the pattern of three other inconclusive wars since the Allied victory in World War II: a wide consensus in entering them, and growing disillusionment as the war drags on, shading into an intense national search for an exit strategy with the emphasis on exit rather than strategy.
We entered Afghanistan to punish the Taliban for harboring al-Qaeda, which, under Osama bin Laden’s leadership, had carried out the Sept. 11 attacks. After a rapid victory, U.S. forces remained to assist the construction of a post-Taliban state. But nation-building ran up against the irony that the Afghan nation comes into being primarily in opposition to occupying forces. When foreign forces are withdrawn, Afghan politics revert to a contest over territory and population by various essentially tribal groups.
In our national debate, the inconclusive effort was blamed on the diversion of resources to Iraq rather than on its inherent implausibility. The new Obama administration coupled withdrawal from Iraq with a surge of troops and material in Afghanistan — an effort I supported in substance if not in every detail. We have now reached its limit.
Eventually we will have to negotiate with the Taliban. However, since we are leaving and they are staying, there is a bit of an asymmetry:
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.
Enforcement is the most crucial element and the most difficult to sustain. After decades of civil war, the parties are unlikely to feel bound by provisions of any agreement. The Taliban especially will try to take over the coalition government or breach the cease-fire. In the absence of a plausible enforcement mechanism, a negotiation with the Taliban, whose forces remain while ours leave, will turn into a mechanism for collapse.
This is particularly the case if negotiations are accompanied by withdrawals amid a public debate over accelerating the process. The more rapid and substantial the immediate withdrawal, the more difficult the negotiating process will be. We must choose our priorities.
I don't think our political process will be oriented towards a continuing demonstration of American resolve. However, as with North Korea, this is a neighborhood problem, not just a US problem:
Although the predominant role of the United States sometimes obscures it, the outcome in Afghanistan is, in essence, an international political problem. The perception that the strongest global power has been defeated would give an impetus to global and regional jihadism. Militant Islam would be encouraged to magnify similar tactics in Kashmir or in India proper, such as the 2008 attacks in Mumbai. The end of such a process is likely to be a proxy war along ethnic fault lines in Afghanistan and elsewhere, especially between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan.
Afghanistan’s other neighbors would be at comparable risk if a Taliban-dominated government or region reverted to the Taliban’s original practices. Every neighbor would be threatened: Russia in its partly Muslim south, China in Xinjiang, Shiite Iran by fundamentalist Sunni trends. In turn, Iran would be tempted by the vacuum to arm sectarian militias, a strategy it has honed in Lebanon and Iraq.
And since it is partly their problem, they ought to be part of the solution:
...A partly regional, partly global diplomatic effort is needed to accompany direct negotiation with the Taliban. So long as America bears the primary burden, Afghanistan’s neighbors avoid difficult decisions. To the extent that U.S. postwar withdrawal is made explicit and inexorable, they will be obliged to take another look. The formal deadline established by NATO, the implicit Obama administration deadline and the public mood make it impossible to persist in an open-ended civil war. An immediate withdrawal largely for symbolic reasons would risk falling between all shoals. A multilateral diplomacy that defines a common international security interest proscribing terrorist training centers and terrorist infrastructure in Afghanistan should be undertaken urgently. To encourage this process, a deadline should be established for reaching a residual force — say, in 18 months to two years, with the major reductions coming at the end of the process. Should a reliable international enforcement mechanism emerge, the U.S. residual force can be merged into it. A regional conference is the only way a bilateral negotiation with the Taliban can be enforced. If the process proves intractable, Afghanistan’s neighbors will eventually have to face the consequences of their abdication alone.
Yes, but - once the US announces a firm deadline the Taliban can simply wait us out and run out the clock by playing its neighbors against each other. As Tom Friedman says in another context, the locals need to want peace more than we do, and right now they don't.
Meanwhile, back in the Senate the John Kerry Dems on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee puzzle over how you can ask a man to write the last nation-building check for a mistake.