Return of the warlords

Return of the warlords

Former Afghan warlord Ismail Khan’s recent call for the mujahedeen to rearm and reunite to defend Afghanistan against a post-2014 Taliban takeover is a reminder that the ongoing U.S. drawdown is changing the calculus not only of our adversaries but of our friends. Indeed, much of the behavior that undermines Afghan state-building (and therefore makes it harder for us to leave) — the kleptocratic government, pervasive corruption, political infighting, and growing strains between President Karzai and Western capitals — stems from the local belief that, with NATO forces soon to depart, our Afghan allies must seize every advantage they can. For Khan and other regional strongmen, this means arming and mobilizing their personal militias while the writ of Washington and Kabul still holds at least some sway in the provinces — in preparation for a period when it may not.

Fans of the Game of Thrones novels have a useful guide to how regional strongmen able to raise their own armies rise to fill vacuums of power left by weak or illegitimate central authority. In the case of Afghanistan, a legitimate central government has lost much of its authority by virtue of its predatory relationship to its citizens and the sense that the private interests of top leaders trump the larger public interest. Sounds like a good reason for the U.S. to "leave Afghanistan to the Afghans," right? Not quite. The sad truth is that the U.S. decision to "end the war" and walk away is more likely than any other external policy to reignite it.

We have seen the evidence for this in the surge of Taliban violence against Afghan institutions since President Obama made explicit the timeline for most U.S. forces to depart. We have also seen regional powers move in to fill what they perceive as an impending vacuum of power following the U.S. retreat. India has signed a strategic partnership agreement with Afghanistan; Pakistan has refused even to pretend to help Washington reach a political settlement with the Taliban, instead doubling down on its own Afghan assets. And now we are seeing the Afghan warlords — including men like Marshal Fahim, who since late 2001 have viewed service in the president’s cabinet and the Afghan National Army as their preferred vehicle for influence and power — position themselves outside those institutions to reprise their former roles as leaders of ethnic armies.

President Obama’s reelection gives him a mandate to reduce the American military footprint in Afghanistan. He has neither a mandate nor an interest, however, in seeing Afghanistan fall apart through a precipitous U.S. retreat that does not leave behind a long-term, stabilizing force on Afghan soil. The military and political Balkanization of Afghanistan would endanger core U.S. interests — in securing the legacy of over a decade of war and development, preventing terrorists from using Afghan territory to plot against America, forestalling regional conflict of the kind that Syria is now generating in the Middle East, and preventing the destabilization of nuclear-armed Pakistan. It would demonstrate to U.S. friends and enemies alike that America does not stand by its allies.

Afghanistan’s disintegration after 2014 — both through a fully fledged Taliban assault on the state and the decision of more strongmen like Ismail Khan to fight back using private rather than public means — would negate a national security record under President Obama that Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden might wish to run on in 2016. It could further radicalize Arab extremists now vying to determine the future of their newly liberated societies, undercutting moderate forces in the Middle East and North Africa who seek long-term partnership with the West to promote democracy and development.

Nor would the Obama administration’s ability to keep American enemies in Pakistan and elsewhere in the region off-balance through drone strikes remain viable should Afghanistan come apart in ways that precluded reliable U.S. basing rights there. For these many reasons, now that his reelection is secured and his governing horizon extends beyond 2014, President Obama may want to come up with a more sustainable policy on Afghanistan than the one on which he campaigned.