Chaos in Kabul
As the 2014 transition to a radically diminished U.S. presence in Afghanistan approaches, the United States will leave behind a perilous security situation, a political system few Afghans see as legitimate, and a likely severe economic downturn. Obama has not yet specified how many U.S. troops will remain in Afghanistan after the transition, but he has made it very clear -- including during the recent visit by President Hamid Karzai -- that troop levels will be in the low thousands and that their functions will be restricted to very narrow counterterrorism and training missions. He also conditioned any continuing U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan on the signing of a status of forces agreement that grants immunity to U.S. soldiers, a condition that the Afghan government may find difficult to swallow.
Although a massive security deterioration, including the possibility of civil war, is far from inevitable, it is a real possibility. Such a meltdown would leave the administration with few policy options, severely compromising America's ability to protect its interests in the region.
A major security collapse in Afghanistan would, in all likelihood, initially resemble the early 1990s pattern of infighting between ethnic groups and local power brokers, rather than the late 1990s, when a Taliban line of control moved steadily north. The extent of violence and fragmentation would depend on whether the Afghan army and police force splintered.
Even then, the Afghan government may have enough strength to hold Kabul, major cities, and other parts of Afghanistan. The Taliban would easily control parts of the south and east, while fighting could break out elsewhere among members of a resurrected Northern Alliance or among Durrani Pashtun power brokers. But ethnic fighting could eventually explode even on the streets of Kabul, where Pashtuns harbor resentments about the post-2001 influx of Tajiks that changed land distribution in the capital. In the event of massive instability, a military coup is also a possibility, particularly if the 2014 presidential election is seen as illegitimate.
An unstable Afghanistan will be like an ulcer bleeding into Pakistan. It will further distract Pakistan's leaders from tackling their country's internal security, economic, energy, and social crises, and stemming the radicalization of Pakistani society. These trends, needless to say, will adversely affect U.S. interests.
Even though U.S. leverage in Afghanistan diminishes daily, decisions made in Washington still critically affect Afghanistan's future. The Obama administration can mitigate risks by withdrawing at a judicious pace -- one that doesn't put an unbearable strain on Afghanistan's security capacity. It should also continue to provide security assistance, define negotiations with the Taliban and Afghan government as a broader reconciliation process, and encourage good governance.
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