It's not inevitable, but it's more likely than ever before. Here's how to avoid the worst.
By the end of this summer, the 30,000 U.S. troops "surged" into Afghanistan by President Barack Obama's administration will have returned home. And according to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, the remaining 68,000 American soldiers could end their combat role in Afghanistan by mid-2013, more than a year ahead of the White House's deadline for leaving the country.
America's war in Afghanistan is by no means over, but its end has already begun. That reality is clear to all Afghan factional chiefs and power brokers, who are preparing for the transition to a post-American Afghanistan. As Afghanistan's alliances and power dynamics shift, the risk of cvil, ethnic conflict breaking out in the country rises -- endangering not only Afghans, but their Pakistani neighbors as well. And ironically, talk of peace and a U.S. withdrawal is contributing to a widening gap between key Afghan factions, which, if not properly contained, could lead to a renewed civil war.
President Hamid Karzai's intentions remain one potential source of instability looming in Afghanistan's future. Karzai has said that he will retire from public office in 2014, but many Afghans believe he will remain in power through unconventional or extra-constitutional measures. The president reportedly supported U.S. plans to accelerate the withdrawal by a year, lending weight to the theory that he is looking for greater maneuverability to prolong his rule.
If Karzai steps down, his replacement -- should one not come from his own family -- is likely to adopt a more hostile approach toward the Taliban, increasing the odds that the insurgency will fester. Abdullah Abdullah, who came in second in the rigged 2009 elections and could throw his hat in the ring once again, is a major Taliban opponent. But if Karzai seeks to stick around, doing so will be no cakewalk. Karzai will face stiff resistance from both a parliament that increasingly demands an expansion of its oversight powers and a rejuvenated political opposition, the National Front for Afghanistan (NFA).
The NFA is a bloc of leaders from three major non-Pashtun communities -- the Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazara -- all of whom opposed the Taliban and Pakistan during the 1990s and remain hostile to both. As Karzai apparently seeks to hold on to executive power, the NFA is pushing for an overhaul of the country's political system. It advocates restructuring Afghanistan as a parliamentary democracy with proportional representation and locally-devolved power -- both of which would benefit non-Pashtuns.
Karzai, an ethnic Pashtun, seeks a political settlement with the three major insurgent factions -- all Pashtuns as well -- led by Mullah Muhammad Omar's Afghan Taliban. But the NFA, as well as a large bloc of parliamentarians from a diverse assortment of ethnic groups and political parties, are hostile to talks with the Taliban, and will at the very least demand a meaningful role in the peace process.
That remains difficult to imagine, as few Afghans aside from the insurgents remain involved in the peace talks. The most promising dialogue track has so far taken place outside of Afghanistan and involves the Afghan Taliban and the governments of Germany, Qatar, and the United States. The location of the Taliban's new office in Qatar was decided against the wishes of the Afghan government, which wanted the office to be in Ankara or Riyadh.
Karzai himself remains minimally involved in the talks and is trying to set up his own negotiations with the Taliban in Saudi Arabia. However, neither the Saudis nor the Taliban are keen on participating. The Saudis have distrusted the Taliban ever since it refused to hand over Osama bin Laden; they will engage the militant group only when it formally breaks ties with al Qaeda. The Taliban, meanwhile, want to cut out Karzai and engage directly with the United States to increase their negotiating leverage.
Karzai faces a difficult balancing act: He must first insert himself into a peace process the Taliban want him to have no part in, and then somehow manage to maintain ties with both the Pashtun Taliban and the non-Pashtun NFA. In any negotiations, the Taliban will undoubtedly push for greater implementation of Islamic law. But members of the NFA, female parliamentarians, and religious minorities such as the Hazara Shiites will resist what they will view as a possible reversion to second-class status.
Building trust between the NFA and the Taliban is key to a lasting political settlement in Afghanistan, but it will be no easy task. The Taliban believe that the NFA seeks a soft partition of the country under the guise of federalism, describing the group's leadership as "infamous warlords." And it is a giant and improbable leap for the Taliban to go from advocating the reestablishment of an authoritarian Islamic emirate to accepting the NFA's demand for a parliamentary democracy.
The underlying divisions between the three insurgent groups will also likely come out into the open if peace talks progress. In contrast to the Afghan Taliban, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Hezb-i-Islami (HIG) calls for a republican-style Islamic government that is more reconcilable with today's Afghan constitution. And Hekmatyar, who briefly served as Afghanistan's prime minister until he fled the Taliban's advance in 1997, likely remains an aspirant for the country's leadership. Both the parliament and Karzai's cabinet are replete with ex-HIG members, and Hekmatyar could present himself as a more practical, Islamic alternative to Mullah Omar. As a result, Hekmatyar's tactical alliance with the Taliban will likely come to an end once the U.S. presence recedes.
The future of the infamous Haqqani network is also unclear. While it does not have a rich political history, it is a group with a radical agenda and potent reach. In a stable political environment, the Haqqani network is likely to remain on board with the Taliban. Amid a political vacuum, the Haqqanis could seek to claim space in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, posing a particular security threat in Afghanistan's southeastern Loya Paktia region and the adjacent Kurram and North Waziristan tribal areas across the Durand Line.
With Afghanistan's three major political blocs and three major insurgent groups moving in opposite directions, the country is facing the prospect of total fragmentation. Here's the worst-case scenario: The U.S. military reaches a settlement with the Afghan Taliban that does not address the country's political future, Karzai holds on to power illegitimately while pressing for his own peace deal with the Taliban, non-Pashtuns rise in opposition to both Karzai and the Taliban, and the national security forces fracture along ethnic lines. At the same time, the three insurgent factions turn against one another as the Haqqani network exploits the chaos and maintains a rear defensive position in Pakistani safe havens. Meanwhile, Pakistan's own domestic Taliban resurges and Islamabad faces yet another wave of terrorism and Afghan refugees.
Such a catastrophe should encourage leaders in Washington, Kabul, and Islamabad to do everything in their power to reach a broad-based political settlement. To avoid this scenario, the U.S.-Taliban talks should somehow be transitioned to an Afghan-led process involving not only the Karzai government but also the NFA. Afghans will have to come to a consensus about the future of their system of government and power-sharing, with final approval from a loya jirga or grand council.
A lasting Afghan peace might be a pipe dream in the short term, but both Afghanistan and the United States should try to coax Pakistan into making the Taliban more amenable to one. In return, Pakistan would get an official seat at the table. While there can and likely will be multiple, parallel negotiating tracks, they should ultimately lead up to a multi-party conference involving the Karzai government, the NFA, Pakistan, the United States, and each of the three major insurgent groups.
Finally, to contain the Taliban's ambitions, it is imperative that coalition forces and Kabul focus on improving the quality, not the quantity, of the Afghan national army and police. The 300,000 army soldiers and nearly 150,000 national policemen -- in addition to the country's unruly local militias -- are not only financially unsustainable, but also dangerous. The massive number of unpaid, armed troops in this conflict-ridden country is a recipe for disaster. The militias should be phased out, and the army professionalized to serve as a bulwark against fragmentation. Only then, perhaps, can Afghanistan avoid the perils of its post-American future.
Pete Souza/White House via Getty Images