Baghdad Bombings and Afghan Peace
There is a curious peace process going on in Kabul. It is curious partly because it is so low key and private. Of course, diplomatic processes are supposed to be held behind the curtain, so that the participants can negotiate freely and reach compromise outcomes that could look like, and be exploited by, opponents as defeats if one knew negotiating postures in advance. While that is actually a sign of the health of the process, it is still curious in an electronic age where secrets of any kind are increasingly impossible to keep. Hopefully someone involved will tell the rest of us how they did it after the process is over–at least unless the process included draconian mutilations of attempted leakers.
Another source of curiosity is the American role. When the talks between the Karzai government and the Taliban began, the American role providing security for and ferrying Taliban negotiators to Kabul was widely publicized for a couple days, but since, there has been not a word about that continuing role–and it certainly does continue. What is interesting about this aspect of the process is that the Taliban actually trusts the United States to act in that capacity. What is more interesting is what this willingness says about the United States and its attitude. What it says to me is that the United States desperately wants to find a way out of Afghanistan and will do virtually anything short of a unilateral withdrawal to find a way out.
A third source of curiosity is exactly what role outsiders are playing in whatever talks are ongoing. The American role is especially veiled: what outcomes does the United States want? What is it willing to accept short of what it wants? And what leverage does it have to move the process toward what it wants out?
One can offer tentative answers to these questions. The answer to the first (what do we want?) is that the United States wants out, but in a way that we can plausibly argue victory (at least in some vague way) or, more minimally, the absence of defeat. That translates into a post-agreement Afghanistan that is non-Taliban and has a strong, stable government. This latter requirement is almost certainly unattainable (Afghanistan never has a strong stable government, and there is really no party that can lead a plausible attempt to create one). That leads to the second question (what, short of our preferred outcome, will we accept?).
The answer to that question is crucial, and it depends on two calculations. The first is domestic in the United States. Like it or not, Barack Obama’s reelection campaign for 2012 is in full motion, and the critical Afghanistan question it faces is, what about Afghanistan will do the president the most good (or create the least harm)? The answer again seems two-fold. By a healthy majority, the American people want out of Afghanistan, an outcome with the secondary benefit of possibly saving money and thus appearing fiscally responsible. Thus, getting us out or well on our way out before 2012 makes political sense. However, there is a second part of the answer: to make the political right, who believe Afghanistan is a righteous cause, the withdrawal has to look like it is done on American terms: there must be an appearance of victory/lack of defeat. An outcome that does this will not gain the support of the right for Obama, but it will make their opposition less convincing and maybe even less shrill (picture Mama Grizzly here). The other consideration is what the parties themselves will accept. It is gradually being recognized (and I suspect we will find later is the real joint interest that created the possibility of talks) that what virtually all Afghans want is for the Americans and their allies to be gone: Karzai so we will quit hectoring him about honest government, the Taliban so we will stop shooting them. If that is the case, they have reason to accede in a peace process wherein the Americans can declare “mission accomplished” and depart.
This brings us to the Baghdad bombings. In the past week or so, what had been passing for tranquility in Baghdad has been shattered by a string of bombings by dissatisfied Iraqis. The process that has just been described for Afghanistan is indeed essentially what happened in Iraq for the past couple years, and what is now going on in Baghdad is its net result. The Americans came, stayed, and seemed intent on staying indefinitely. Faced with that distasteful prospects, the Iraqi factions came together and negotiated enough of a peace agreement to make it look enough like peace had broken out so the Americans, anxious to go, could conclude an arguably accomplished mission, and withdraw combat forces.
Everybody who knew anything about Iraq knew the peace would not hold, and the bombings are just the tip of the iceberg of lingering Iraqi instability. Peace has not taken hold in Iraq, and it will not for a while–but with a difference. The United States retains a physical presence, but we have withdrawn in a psychological, political sense. Nothing likely to happen in Iraq will affect the 2012 election. In answer to the third question about Afghanistan (what is American leverage?), the answer is close to zero, and no amount of proposed American postwar assistance (which we will probably welsh on anyway) will affect that much.
Will the same thing happen in Afghanistan? Almost certainly. The peace process will, in due time, produce what both sides and the United States can agree is an honorable, stable peace. No one involved will really believe that, but it is a necessary kabuki dance to a) get rid of the Americans and b) remove Afghanistan from the 2012 election campaign. Will the peace hold? The answer is about as well as it has done in Iraq, but like Iraq, if we have managed to establish a psycho-political distance from Afghanistan, who cares?