The Nixon test
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By combining narrow military escalation and bluffs, Nixon and his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, had tried to buy a "decent interval" before the weak US-backed regime in South Vietnam inevitably fell to the north. That interval would separate Washington politically and strategically from the conflict, limiting the costs of America's unwinnable war. Rose then argued that a decent interval was about the best Washington could hope to get in Afghanistan. Today, as Obama and his challenger, Mitt Romney, debate America's role in the world, it is hard to escape the conclusion that US strategy in Afghanistan is failing to achieve even that minimal, cynical American objective.
The Kabul government is weak. The landlocked state still lacks a viable, licit economy that can support its people. If security deteriorates further, brain drain and capital flight will deliver a body blow to an already shaky situation. In Washington, Obama's top advisors have quietly accepted the idea of aiming for "Afghan good enough" rather than striving to install the foundations for better governance or sustainable economic growth. What this will mean when it comes to protecting progress that has been made in Afghanistan over the past decade — on educating girls, for instance — is a topic US officials prefer to avoid.
The sad truth is that if present trends hold, as American troops leave Afghanistan so will American reporters. Few will notice deteriorating conditions inside Afghanistan, fewer will say anything, and no one will lift a finger. Limited counter-terror operations by cruise missile or drone strikes will be the extent of US activity inside Afghanistan, and even those might be hard to manage effectively over time as local intelligence sources dry up.
What of US plans to build a viable Afghan national army and police? Until recently, this pillar of the US strategy was the most promising. The US is good at building partner militaries. With enough time, money and trainers, Afghanistan's army and even some of its police and paramilitary forces could fend off Taliban offensives. It is worth remembering that even the Soviets — far more brutal and unpopular occupiers — managed to build an Afghan army that lasted years longer than its detractors, including many Taliban-backers in Pakistan, anticipated.
Yet confidence on this score is also waning. Afghan political turbulence, high rates of desertion, low rates of re-enlistment, not to mention the recent spate of green-on-blue attacks, have raised new questions. US leaders underfunded the Afghan army for most of the war and then when American money started to flow, Washington's patience was short. With these frustrations in mind, cutting a deal with the Taliban has taken on a new urgency in Washington's calculations. Progress is hard to judge in secretive talks, but it is clear that reconciliation efforts with the Taliban could have been handled more deftly.
Negotiations should have been choreographed with US military operations to weaken the Taliban's hand. Unfortunately, by coupling the surge with a limited timetable of 18 months, Obama telegraphed that America was running out of steam, weakening its own hand. By starting to phase out the surge before tackling hotspots in Afghanistan's eastern provinces, home to the disruptive Haqqani network, Washington failed to ratchet up the pressure in a targeted way. Today, it is unclear what, if any, leverage Washington holds with the Taliban.
Even if a deal does materialise now, it will have to be monitored and enforced. That would probably require international forces for years to come. Without strong leadership from Washington, Nato states eagerly seeking a way out of the conflict will not re-commit to a peacekeeping mission. The job will more likely be fobbed off to the United Nations and other regional players with forces less well-equipped to keep the peace. Under any circumstances, a peace deal would represent the beginning of a peace-building process, not the end. It should not be mistaken for an easy way to bring stability to Afghanistan, even if that is precisely what Washington might hope.
In short, none of the pieces of a "decent interval" strategy is holding up very well at the moment. Doing more of the same won't change that. What would it take to turn the situation around? To start with, it would require a change of faces in Washington. If Obama wins the election, it would mean installing a new national security team willing to revisit the strategy in Afghanistan with the latitude to shift course, if only to reclaim greater leverage over negotiations with the insurgents. This is conceivable but unlikely. Even if the top jobs at the state department and the Pentagon change hands soon after the election, Vice President Joe Biden has declared a firm commitment to ending the war in 2014; hardly a recipe for dealing from a position of strength.
If Romney wins, his team could try to send a far more forceful message to the Taliban. That would mean extending the timelines for military departure, ramping up operations in eastern Afghanistan, and playing even harder hardball with Pakistan. This might improve prospects for a "decent interval". It might also amount to little more than a politically and militarily costly escalation.
Like Nixon before him, Romney would face a divided but increasingly anti-war public. This may explain Romney's reluctance to go into details about his Afghanistan strategy on the campaign trail. It is uncertain whether Congress would tie a President Romney's hands, for instance by de-funding the war as it did decades ago in Vietnam. Many Democrats and isolationist Republicans would undoubtedly consider it, as would a good number of their more moderate colleagues.
Would Romney wish to risk his first term on an inherited, unpopular war? That depends, of course, on whether he accepts the present frustrations in Afghanistan as inescapable — as the Obama team appears to — and whether he believes he can do one better than Nixon did at his own game.
The writer is senior fellow for South Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, Washington, email@example.com