The Taliban have a saying: “Americans have the watches but we have the time.” In the Strategic Partnership Agreement signed last week with Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan’s leader, President Obama set the stopwatch at 2014 when all US combat forces will have left the country. The deal will leave America’s special operations forces in place and continue training for the Afghan National Army. But there will be no permanent US military bases. America’s longest war will be at an end.
Obama has kept his promise to the American people. However, to say – as he did in his surprise address from Kabul last week – that the US is “within reach” of its goals is not justified by the facts. Given the Taliban’s growing impact in the past few months, it is hard to believe that “Kabulistan” will by 2014 have managed to extend its writ across the country. Quite the reverse. As the US draws down, the picture is deteriorating. What can be done to stem a repeat of the civil war that followed the Soviet withdrawal in 1989?
Even posing the question highlights how much will continue to be at stake. Few observers any longer believe it is realistic to aim for a normal democracy in Afghanistan. But it ought to be possible to prevent the country from once again turning into a net exporter of instability to its neighbours and beyond. Mr Obama should not delude himself into believing that the US and its allies are on course to achieving that.
In less than two weeks Mr Obama will host the next Nato summit in his home town of Chicago. He should use the opportunity to call for the kind of diplomatic surge that the late Richard Holbrooke – Mr Obama’s special representative on “Afpak” – was attempting with Nato, the big Asian nations and the six that border Afghanistan. Many, notably rivals such as Pakistan and Iran, are currently encouraged to sponsor their proxies in Afghanistan in the expectation that Kabul will remain weak – or get weaker. Only in concert is there hope of persuading them of the merits of building a stable Afghanistan.
The goal might sound utopian. Were Obama to embrace a renewed international effort to stabilise Afghanistan, he would be wise to allow others to take the lead. US-Iran relations will continue to be dominated by the nuclear crisis. It would be hard to imagine Tehran responding to separate US-led overtures on Afghanistan – or Washington making them. And in Pakistan, anti-American sentiment has only grown since last year’s killing of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad.
Yet that is every reason for Mr Obama to initiate a diplomatic offensive. As US forces withdraw, Washington’s already shaky leverage over Pakistan will diminish. Containing the Pakistan-based Haqqani Network, which last month paralysed Kabul in a series of attacks, and retaining America’s ability to carry out drone strikes will thus get harder. Tying future US aid to Pakistan’s improved co-operation has diminishing returns. History shows that Pakistan can barely be rented, let alone bought.
Without change, it is all too easy to imagine a repeat of the circumstances that led to the Taliban’s seizure of power in the late 1990s. That is not a spectre that will appeal to China, Russia and India – which have largely stood aside since 2001. Each has a common interest in preventing a return to outright warlordism in Afghanistan. And each has the ability to influence Afghanistan’s neighbours – in India’s case by refraining from giving Pakistan any pretext to intensify the proxy war on Afghan soil.
Nor is the spectre of Talibanisation one the west should tolerate. There is still time for Obama to reverse the familiar course of events. But he will need to start soon. And his efforts will have to be equal to the Taliban’s patience.