Professor of Mythological Studies at the Pacifica Graduate Institute in Santa Barbara, California 

Can We Afford Another Failed State in Afghanistan? Beyond the 2014 Drawdown

Posted: Updated: 

President Obama has threatened a full U.S. troop drawdown from Afghanistan by the end of this year unless Afghan President Hamid Karzai signs a security agreement with the U.S. Obama didn't say anything about "the asking price" of the controversial agreement, nor did he say much about the Afghan state the U.S would be leaving behind. He did not give even any inkling of the possibility that Afghanistan could plunge into the quagmire of a failed state to which the U.S. will not be indifferent -- a scenario based on the uncertainties likely to be left by unresolved issues.

American and NATO forces are leaving behind a country where only 10 percent of its GDP of $1 billion comes from legitimate economic activity; of the remainder, 30 percent comes from underground narcotic trade and 60 percent from foreign aid. As a country with one of the highest military to civilian ratios, Afghanistan has more than 350,000 security force, both army and police, with $4 billion annual operation cost, but with few resources to support it. These armed forces are comprised predominantly of ethnic minorities from the north of the country that are launched against a resistance that comes largely from the country's Pashtun ethnic majority in the south.

Many of the warlords who Balkanized the country in the 1990s act as high-ranking officials and parliamentarians, ranks they have acquired through the flagrant abuse of ethnic loyalties and tribal quotas. They have divvied up public offices to their former militia and have carved out ethnic-exclusive zones of influence in the government bureaucracy. These ethnic fiefdoms within the present bureaucracy are a major stumbling block to reform and the source of unbridled government corruption.

Furthermore, some of these warlords-turned-demagogues have been implicated in crimes against humanity, but remain immune to prosecution with the tacit approval of the United States. Most of them are also on the not-so-secret CIA payroll and have acquired large estates in Afghanistan and abroad -- primarily in Dubai and Istanbul. By manipulating linguistic fault lines in the ethnic mosaic of Afghanistan the U.S. has been instrumental in creating a 'bribed and indebted' super rich class of collaborators in one of the poorest countries in the world.

The loss of thousands of lives and trillions of dollars in America's longest military adventure has created what is perhaps the world's most corrupt state. At the same time, Afghanistan is a country with an estimated $1 trillion mineral wealth "without proper structures and management." The country's fragile political structure, presently held together by a scaffolding of American military and economic assistance, could collapse into a failed state overnight, manifesting the worse aspects of the civil strife seen in Rwanda, Congo, and Syria.

In the annals of U.S. foreign policy, Afghanistan stands as a typical case where a flawed military strategy has sidelined viable political solutions. Washington incentivized war through perks and privileges, and four-star promotions and undermined peace efforts. The U.S. has had a war strategy, but no political strategy or a clear exit strategy.

The presence of foreign troops is never conducive to peace and sophisticated weapon systems don't stop wars, they only raise the prize in blood the less equipped opponent is willing to pay, e.g. resorting to suicide bombing in desperation. The U.S.-Afghanistan Bilateral Security Agreement may delay the occurrence of a failed state in Afghanistan, but without a peace initiative it will not prevent it. Averting that dreaded scenario requires a more comprehensive approach that reflects a peace initiative borne by regional reality rather than a shortsighted military strategy.

Now that Afghanistan's second generation is being raised in the nearly four decades of war, the welfare of its citizens should be achieved through minimizing foreign interference and maximizing political participation through reconciliation. Likewise, the success of the American assistance to Afghanistan should be measured through a dividend of peace and security that could potentially provide opportunities for American investment and offset some of the cost, instead of linking it to military bases that will undoubtedly entail onerous maintenance cost.

Thus, a peace initiative is not just an ideal, but a practical solution beneficial to both Afghans and Americans. A comprehensive peace plan can end the current impasse, achieve long-term regional security, and can prevent Afghanistan from becoming a failed state again.

Early in the Obama administration there was a debate about the best exit strategy. The generals were calling for a surge to eliminate the resistance once and for all. The diplomats like Richard Holbrooke, a career diplomat who was instrumental in resolving the former Yugoslavia crisis, considered negotiation for power sharing with the opposition critical and essential to the Afghan crisis.

That modicum of peace effort was abandoned with the untimely death of Richard Holbrooke and along with it all the expectations of a peace initiative from a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate President Obama vanished. Now that the surge has failed to win "the right war," it is time to revive the peace initiative.

Every military conflict is eventually resolved through peace. No peace initiative will succeed without a bold stand by the United States to convince the Afghan resistance that while they may win through a costly war at some future point in time, they can certainly win without bloodshed now if they join the peace process. Similarly, the hedging strategies of neighboring Pakistan and Iran can be brought in line with an outright U.S. support for an ethnically balanced representative government in Afghanistan. This two-tier peace plan calls for a reconciliation stratagem modeled on the South African experience and the replication of Swiss Neutrality principle in the regional context:

1. The U.S. economic assistance should not be made contingent upon the establishment of military bases; instead it should be linked to a peace and reconciliation process in which the re-integration of the resistance forces is coordinated to coincide with the complete withdrawal of the American residual forces.

2. A regional multilateral treaty must be signed with all of Afghanistan's neighboring states under the auspices of the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council that guarantees the neutrality of Afghanistan and the inviolability of its borders to any military intrusion or political interference.