When the West finally leaves after more than a decade of war, the country will not be so different than how we found it.
Children look at a smoking German soldier on a patrol in the village of Isa Khel in Chahar Dara district / Reuters
The West's military engagement in Afghanistan is entering its eleventh year and has another two years to go before the end of combat operations in 2014. Whatever the result of the international conferences that began last year in Istanbul and Bonn to elicit support for a successor state, one thing is clear: after Western forces draw down, Afghanistan won't bear much resemblance to the Western vision that fueled the intervention in the first place. However effective Western military organizations are in transitioning to Afghan control, the country's future will not be decided primarily by the residual structures and legacies of Western involvement, the current Taliban insurgency or even any formal process of reconciliation. Rather, it will be decided more by the country's ethnic character, the particular nature of local and national governance, and the influence of neighboring powers with enduring geopolitical and strategic imperatives in the region far stronger than those of the West.In other words, the future of Afghanistan will be determined by forces that antedate the latest Western effort to direct a turbulent area--and which probably will long survive this and future efforts to dominate the country.
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Thus, it is possible to discern a picture of an Afghan future and to predict it will fall far short of the high hopes that attended American and Western engagement there following the al-Qaeda attacks in America on September 11, 2001. These were hopes of an Afghanistan ruled effectively by a central government in Kabul aligned with the West and capable of keeping the Taliban at bay. Instead, Western influence will be severely reduced. The central government in Kabul will probably be weak, as it has been for most of Afghanistan's history. The centrifugal effect of Afghanistan's ethnic geography will be exacerbated by intensified involvement, directly and by proxy, of competing external powers. Pakistani, Indian and Iranian influence will increase, as will that of the Afghan Taliban in Pashtun-majority areas and probably within the Kabul political establishment. In the absence of a significant improvement in the relationship between India and Pakistan, their geopolitical competition, played out by proxy, could become the dominant ideological conflict inside Afghanistan. Given the weakness of the Afghan national polity, endemic corruption and economic dependence on international aid, the long-term survival of any successor regime is doubtful, even without the challenge of a Taliban insurgency more coherent than the mujahideen insurgency of the 1990s.
Two fundamental strategic questions emerge from this picture of the Afghan future. First, in the event of a failure to manage the insurgency in the South and East, where the Taliban is strong and likely to remain strong, can a non-Taliban redoubt be sustained in northern Afghanistan? And, second, how effectively could influence be projected into the Pashtun South in order to prevent, if necessary, al-Qaeda from reestablishing an operational base in that area?