As it braces for its upcoming presidential election, Afghanistan finds itself at another critical juncture, with its unity and territorial integrity at stake after 35 years of relentless war. Can Afghanistan finally escape the cycle of militancy and foreign intervention that has plagued it for more than three decades?
Two key questions are shaping discussions about Afghanistan’s trajectory after this year.
The first concerns the extent to which Pakistan will interfere in Afghan affairs, such as by aiding and abetting the Afghan Taliban and its main allies, including the Haqqani network and warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s militia.
This will depend on whether the US conditions its generous aid to cash-strapped Pakistan on noninterference in Afghanistan.
The second question is whether US-led NATO forces will continue to play any role in Afghanistan.
It is no secret that US President Barack Obama wants to maintain a US military presence in the country — a reversal of his declaration in 2009 that the US sought no military bases there.
Indeed, for several months, the US has been involved in painstaking negotiations with the Afghan government to conclude a bilateral security agreement that would enable the US to maintain bases in Afghanistan virtually indefinitely.
What was supposed to be an endgame for Afghanistan has turned into a new game over the US’ basing strategy.
However, despite having finalized the terms of the agreement, Obama failed to persuade outgoing Afghan President Hamid Karzai to sign it. That means that the US’ role in the country can be settled only after the new Afghan president assumes office next month.
And the election’s outcome is far from certain.
While all eight Afghan presidential candidates claim to support the security accord, this may offer little comfort to the US, given that most of the candidates have directly opposed US interests in the past — not to mention that several of them are former or current warlords.
Moreover, there remains the question of how a residual US-led force, even if sizable, could make a difference in Afghanistan, given that a much larger force failed to secure a clear victory over the past 13 years.
Obama has offered no answer.
Nonetheless, there is strong bipartisan support in the US for maintaining military bases in Afghanistan, as a means of projecting hard power, and the increasingly charged confrontation between the US and Russia over Ukraine has boosted that support considerably.
In fact, former US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice explicitly linked Russia’s actions in Ukraine with “talk of withdrawal from Afghanistan, whether the security situation warrants it or not.”
According to Rice, anything less than a residual force of 10,000 US troops will send the message that the US is not serious about helping to stabilize Afghanistan — a message that would embolden Russian President Vladimir Putin further.
What she does not seem to recognize is that the US’ deteriorating ties with Russia — a key conduit for US military supplies to Afghanistan — could undercut its basing strategy.
The US is clearly convinced that a continued military presence in Afghanistan is in its interests.
However, what would it mean for Afghanistan, a country that has long suffered at the hands of homegrown militant groups and foreign forces alike?