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CHELLANEY: Lingering too long in Afghanistan

The endgame for U.S. presence has become a new game

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Afghanistan's presidential election — now set to enter the runoff stage — will mark the first peaceful transition of power in the history of that unfortunate country, ravaged by endless war since 1979. Afghans, displaying courage in the face of adversity, braved Taliban attacks and threats, and voted in large numbers on April 5 to bring about a peaceful transfer of power.

After almost 35 years of bloodletting, Afghans are desperate for peace. President Hamid Karzai's successor has his work cut out for him, including promoting national reconciliation by building bridges with the country's disparate ethnic and political groups, strengthening the still-fledgling, multiethnic Afghan Army, and ensuring free and fair parliamentary elections next year.

The role of external players, however, overshadows internal dynamics. Two external factors will significantly influence Afghanistan's political and security transition: the likely post-2014 role of U.S.-led NATO forces and the level of interference by Pakistan, which still harbors sanctuaries for militants and the command-and-control structure for Afghan insurgency.

Pakistani noninterference in Afghanistan's internal affairs can occur only if President Obama's administration finally makes that a condition for continuing its generous aid to cash-strapped Pakistan — a remote prospect.

Mr. Obama, meanwhile, has made a U-turn on U.S. and NATO military presence in Afghanistan and is now seeking bases there for a virtually unlimited period. He had declared in Cairo in 2009, "We do not want to keep our troops in Afghanistan. We seek no military bases there."

However, in a change of heart, Mr. Obama now wants bases there to house a fairly sizable U.S.-led NATO force armed with authority to "conduct combat operations." What was supposed to be an endgame for Afghanistan has turned into a new game over a long-term basing strategy.

Mr. Obama, however, is under political attack at home for having failed to persuade Mr. Karzai to sign a bilateral security agreement, which is to provide the legal basis for keeping U.S. bases. The fact that the United States left no residual forces in Iraq when it ended its decade-long occupation of that country has made the appeal particularly strong in Washington to maintain bases in Afghanistan, where America is seeking to terminate the longest war in its history.

Although Kabul and Washington have finalized the terms of the bilateral agreement, Mr. Karzai withstood intense U.S. pressure to sign the document, leaving that critical decision to his successor. In truth, Mr. Karzai was afraid that if he signed a pact allowing foreign military bases indefinitely, he could go down in Afghan history as the second Shah Shuja. A puppet ruler installed by the British in 1839, Shah Shuja was deposed and assassinated three years later, but not before precipitating the First Anglo-Afghan War.

Mr. Obama now has little choice but to wait and try to persuade the next Afghan president to sign the accord.

Mr. Obama, however, has not grasped the main reason why America's 13-year war in Afghanistan has foundered — the failure to reconcile military and political objectives. From the time it invaded Afghanistan, America pursued a military surge in Afghanistan, but an aid surge to the country harboring terrorist havens and the "Quetta Shura," as the Afghan Taliban leadership is known. The war was made unwinnable by U.S. refusal to target Pakistan for actively abetting elements killing or maiming American troops.

Terrorism and insurgency have never been defeated in any country without choking transboundary sustenance and support. Afghans have borne the brunt from two fronts — U.S. military intervention and Pakistan's use of surrogate militias.

Mr. Obama's basing strategy could presage a shift from a full-fledged war to a low-intensity war, but without fixing the incongruous duality in America's Afghanistan-Pakistan policy.

A smaller U.S. force in Afghanistan indeed would only increase Washington's imperative to mollycoddle Pakistani generals and cut a deal with the Taliban in order to secure American bases.

Washington plans to gift Pakistan its surplus military hardware in Afghanistan, including several hundred mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles. It has also agreed to taper off drone strikes in Pakistan. The number of U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan actually declined from 122 in 2010 to 26 in 2013, with no attacks occurring since last December.

Even more revealing is what the drones have not targeted. To preserve the option of reaching a Faustian bargain with its main battlefield opponent — the Afghan Taliban — the United States has not carried out a single air, drone or ground attack against that militia's leadership, which is ensconced in Pakistan's sprawling Baluchistan province. U.S. drone strikes have been restricted to the Pakistani tribal region to the north, Waziristan, where they have targeted the nemesis of the Pakistani military — the Pakistani Taliban.

A continued U.S. approach based on reward for Pakistan and punishing airstrikes in Afghanistan, even if less frequent, would make the latter's future more uncertain than ever. To make matters worse, the U.S. plan to start significantly cutting aid to Kabul from next year threatens to undermine a key requirement to keep the Afghan Taliban at bay — strengthening Afghanistan's security forces.

Last May, Mr. Obama recalled the warning of James Madison — America's fourth president — that "no nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare." Yet he now seeks a long-term military engagement in Afghanistan, which is good news for the Pakistani generals, but not for U.S., Afghan or regional interests.

There are admittedly no good options on Afghanistan. However, an indefinite role for foreign forces would be the equivalent of administering the same medicine that has seriously worsened the patient's condition.

It is past time for Afghanistan to take charge of its own security and destiny. Outside assistance should be limited to strengthening the Afghan government's hand.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of "Water, Peace, and War" (Rowman & Littlefield).

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