How the U.S. can withdraw without too much of a disaster.
To a growing number of Americans, Afghanistan is a festering pit where the United States has no vital interests. To a growing number of Afghans, the United States is a self-absorbed and feckless power that is playing games in their country.
Both caricatures are wrong. Yes, American troops should gradually withdraw from Afghanistan. And yes, the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai remains corrupt and largely ineffective. But what is needed is a decisive agreement between the Afghan and American governments on the way forward, not sniping at each other in public and pandering to domestic political audiences.
First, let's discard some myths:
Afghanistan is strategically unimportant to the United States: For even the most cynical Americans, a stable Afghanistan is important because of the roughly 100 nuclear warheads sitting in neighboring Pakistan. If hardline Taliban regain control of southern Afghanistan, it will be a safe haven for Pakistani Taliban and foreign militants. Attacks against Pakistan will definitely be plotted, and attacks on the United States could be planned from there as well.
All Afghans want Americans forces to leave immediately: The shameful video of Marines urinating on Taliban corpses, burning of Korans and massacre of 16 civilians will clearly increase the number of Afghans who want American soldiers out. In a November 2010 poll, 55 percent of Afghans said U.S. forces should withdraw immediately, but only 9 percent supported the Taliban. In some ways, there are two Afghanistans. The Taliban enjoy support in the rural south and east, but many Afghans - particularly the 23 percent who are city-dwellers and comparatively prosperous - fear that a post-American Afghanistan will quickly descend into civil war. They want the U.S. to help craft a political settlement before leaving. The violence today in Afghanistan is gruesome, but more Afghans died during the civil war of the 1990s.
An immediate American withdrawal will bring peace to Afghanistan: Michael Semple, an Afghanistan expert and longtime proponent of negotiating with the Taliban, argues that a hurried American withdrawal decreases the likelihood of reaching a negotiated agreement with the Taliban. "Any further acceleration would reduce the chances for a peace agreement," he told me in an email, "and even increase the chances of a civil war." If the Taliban think all U.S. forces are leaving in 2014, why would they come to the negotiating table and compromise now?
All Taliban are rabid fundamentalists uninterested in compromise: The decision by the Taliban's leadership to negotiate with the U.S. was a controversial inside the group, according to Semple. Pragmatists supported it. Hawks opposed it. A political settlement in Afghanistan is the one way the Taliban can gain international acceptance and free themselves from the control of Pakistan's intelligence service. That carrot is real; the United States should use it. Today's "suspension" is a negotiating tactic. Talks will and should continue.