Steve Coll’s Sobering Vision of Afghanistan’s Future: Event Report

On February 27, Steve Coll (President of the New America Foundation and Pulitzer Prize-winning author) gave a strikingly clear and sobering analysis of problems afflicting the U.S. exit strategy from war in Afghanistan. His opening premise was a moral one: given the Afghan people’s suffering through mostly continuous wars since 1979, as well as the costs borne by Americans and Canadians during the past decade, it is “a matter of honour” for the United States to have a coherent plan for leaving that country in 2014. The current U.S./NATO strategy, he argued, is based on flawed assumptions that must be rethought, given the potential for disastrous civil unrest if the 2014 Afghan elections and political transition do not unfold legitimately. That honest reassessment must happen very soon, before time runs out. And there’s room for outsiders, including Canada, to enable a strategic recalibration to occur.

Coll began his discussion by noting that the current U.S. transition strategy (to the extent that a coherent strategy exists at all) is informed by two precedents: the Soviet exit from Afghanistan in 1989 and the perceived lessons of the U.S. pull-out from Iraq. In fact, though, neither of these precedents closely parallels the current situation in Afghanistan. The U.S. has been roughly following the Soviets’ military strategy of building up the Afghan Army and controlling the major Afghan cities, roads and communications links. However, they have been unable to recreate the political stability that was left in place when the Soviets pulled out: a client government led by the tough and savvy President Mohammad Najibullah, which lasted until the collapse of the U.S.S.R. in 1992. The U.S. has no such political ally in President Hamid Karzai, who is scheduled to leave office, due to constitutional term limits, at the 2014 Afghan elections.

Watch the video of Steve Coll’s public lecture.
Watch the video of Roland Paris’ interview with Steve Coll.

As for the relevance of the U.S. exit from Iraq, Coll argued that General David Petraeus was mistaken to think that the successful conversion of Iraqi local militias into effective police forces could be replicated in Afghanistan. Iraqi tribes had their authority largely intact in the post-conflict period and could hence ‘turn’ coherently to political reintegration; but the very different socio-political structure in Afghanistan offers no comparable possibility for bottom-up reintegration. (Hence the recent strategic focus on top-down talks with the Taliban aiming for their partial reintegration into the nation’s political fabric.)

The current U.S. plan, readied by the military for President Obama after his electoral victory, was analyzed by Coll as being based on many assumptions: that southern Afghanistan, being the ‘centre of gravity’ where the Taliban is based, would be the best place to attack the Taliban; that the Afghan National Army could be rebuilt into a hundreds of thousands-strong force with stable leadership by 2014; that Kabul would be stable enough politically to permit a security transition by 2014; that reintegration of tribal militias, along the Iraqi model, would work; that the ‘civilian surge’ of diplomats, advisers and aid workers would supplement the efforts of international troops to link Afghan civilians with the government; and that the transition would succeed even if the Taliban’s involvement in Pakistan could not be significantly altered.

Obviously, Coll argued, these assumptions turned out to be poor ones, and the plan they supported must now be revised. This must be done in face of the massive tendency in Washington to resist starting over, to blame Afghans and Pakistanis for failures to date, and to hope for the best from the current course.

Coll asserted that if the U.S. were to do the responsible thing by fundamentally rethinking its current strategy, it must grapple with four large questions:

  • How long will the political centre in Afghanistan hold, and how long will the Afghan army have a coherent body politic to be loyal to in face of tendencies among its leadership toward ethnic and regional imbalance, factionalism, and corrupt cronyism?
  • Who will succeed President Karzai in the 2014 election, and how can a fair constitutional transition be ensured in order to avoid the civil conflict that would likely ensue from another fraudulent election?
  • What will happen to improve the currently dismal relations between the U.S. and Pakistan (which has an existential interest in securing peace and stability within Afghanistan)?
  • And what is ‘Plan B’ that the U.S. and NATO leaders will adopt in case the transition breaks down into failure?

This last question of a ‘Plan B’ is one to which Coll admitted he had no easy answer. Nonetheless, he reiterated the importance for all parties, despite their exhaustion, to keep thinking it through. The post-9/11 insight that Afghan and U.S. security is inextricably linked—and indeed that the security of all peoples is more linked now than at any stage in human history—must guide a collective grappling toward a better U.S. exit strategy in the time that remains. Outside countries such as Canada, he emphasized, have a significant role to play in helping the U.S. think through these challenges.

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