Settling for Good Enough in Afghanistan

by , March 30, 2010

Afghan President Hamid Karzai is considering a peace offer from the militant group Hizb-i-Islami, which is led by warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and linked to the Taliban. The good news is that this may be a sign of the Karzai government exercising sovereignty by engaging in policies and actions it deems are in the best interest of Afghanistan and its people. It may also be recognition that power-sharing between the central government in Kabul and the so-called warlords in the provinces is the only way anything resembling peace will be achieved in Afghanistan.

And the initial U.S. reaction has been positive. According to U.S. spokesperson Caitlin Hayden, "The U.S. does support the Afghan government’s interest in reaching out to members of insurgent groups that cease support to insurgency, live in accordance with the Afghan constitution, renounce violence, and have no ties to al-Qaeda or terrorist organizations that share its objectives." But what does "live in accordance with the Afghan constitution" mean? The United States has pushed for a strong central government in Kabul, but Afghanistan has traditionally been governed via a relatively weak central government that shares power with provincial leaders. Will we not support a peace in Afghanistan if it reverts back to its traditional form of governance?

Ultimately, the United States should be less concerned by the type of government in Afghanistan and whom it consists of. The only real U.S. national security requirement is that the Kabul government not support al-Qaeda or any other terrorist group that would attack the United States. That means even though the previous Taliban government gave shelter and support to Osama bin Laden, the current incarnation of the Taliban – at least those elements that are not tied to al-Qaeda – might be able to be part of governing Afghanistan. Moreover, it may be impossible to completely eradicate an al-Qaeda presence in Afghanistan – but if that only represents a local threat, then that may be a less-than-perfect situation we have to accept.

The overture by Hekmatyar also highlights some of the larger problems with U.S. policy toward Afghanistan, if not the larger Muslim world. During the 1980s, Hekmatyar was the recipient of millions of dollars of U.S. military aid to fight the Evil Empire when the Soviet Union occupied Afghanistan. But Hekmatyar fell from grace afterward because of his role in the ensuing civil war after the Soviet withdrawal. And he was declared a "global terrorist" by the Bush administration in 2003. (Hekmatyar was believed to be behind several attacks in Afghanistan, including a September 2002 car bombing in downtown Kabul that killed 25 civilians, a September 2002 assassination attempt on Hamid Karzai, a January 2003 attack on a United Nations convoy, and a February 2003 rocket attack on a U.S. base in Khost.) Hekmatyar’s grievances? A foreign military in Afghanistan and a puppet government propped up by the United States. Sound like a familiar story? Does the name "Osama bin Laden" ring a bell?

More importantly, Hekmatyar is insistent on withdrawal of U.S. forces. Indeed, he is calling for beginning such a withdrawal this July – one year sooner than President Obama’s plan (announced last December) to surge troops in Afghanistan and begin withdrawing them in 18 months. Ultimately, U.S. military occupation is at the heart of the problem in Afghanistan. Not only is it a roadblock to peace in Afghanistan (foreign military occupation will always be a rallying cry for jihad – you would think we would know that based on the Soviet experience, especially since we helped foment the jihad), it is also a threat to U.S. national security, because it needlessly gives credence to the jihadist narrative that the United States is invading Islam, which makes America a target for terrorism.

Read more by Charles V. Peña