Kissinger and the Exit Strategy from Afghanistan

The debate is on about what we should be doing to deal with the challenge of our end point in Afghanistan.  Henry Kissinger, believe it or not, adds useful points to this debate in his op-ed in the Washington Post on June 8th. While I have had a number of disagreements with many of HAK’s policies and actions for decades and reviewed two of his “memoir” books for publications, I also need to disclose that I served him while a member of the Secretary’s Policy Planning Staff in the 70s.  In that position, I observed the decisions to respond to the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, and later I saw the results of that war on Afghan refugees in the region when I was director of the State’s Office of Asian Refugee Assistance in the 1980s.

I thought then and now that a number of HAK’s policies were, in my view, wrong and even immoral; nevertheless, some of his actions were quite innovative and historic, not least the opening to China and the famous “détente” policy towards the Soviet Union.  His mind was always a wonder to watch, including all of its contradictions.

In the case of Afghanistan, Kissinger’s op-ed gives us a look at the region’s landscape now ten years into conflict. He agrees with many analysts that it is not Afghanistan in itself that matters but the region and especially Pakistan and India. He also acknowledges that diplomacy rather than war will be the key instrument for ensuring the best possible conditions for withdrawal. His best contribution here is also his main conditions for a “prudent” withdrawal:

“For negotiation to turn into a viable exit strategy, four conditions must be met: a cease-fire; withdrawal of all or most American and allied forces; the creation of a coalition government or division of territories among the contending parties (or both); and an enforcement mechanism.”

There is good reason for a close and deep examination of America’s role and exit strategy given the length and cost of the war.  But given that great cost, prudence in our decisions is also required – as any wise policy analyst must look at the consequences of all options. Kissinger sets the context for his argument by saying: “Still the challenge remains of how to conclude our efforts without laying the groundwork for a wider conflict.”

The other contribution that Kissinger made in his op-ed was to directly address the issue of regional stability and security, which must include the Pakistan-India issue, Iran, and beyond.  He is right that Afghanistan could fall prey to increased conflict and internal chaos without the counterbalancing of an internal independent moderating force and agreed political settlement.

Furthermore, a larger regional settlement that does not address the interests of Afghanistan’s neighbors is a recipe for a further disaster in an area that has nuclear weapons.

One problem with his construct is that it initially implies delays in the withdrawal of NATO-US forces in order to provide the leverage for negotiations and make clear to all parties that they must deal with American power and cannot wait out our leaving. The problem is that this could set up a condition by which we would be destined to stay for an undetermined period in the midst of internal conflict, which is also unacceptable. Some players want us out now and others want stability over withdrawal if those were the choices.

I believe that Kissinger exaggerates the negative impact of a quick withdrawal on American global influence as a result of a “perception that the strongest global power has been defeated” and that it “would give an impetus to global and regional jihadism.” He is right that both an internal political settlement and a regional agreement are necessary and that a “multilateral diplomacy,” which brings together common interests, is clearly a better alternative to either an endless “war-war” or an “inexorable withdrawal.” One problem with HAK’s argument is that it fails to adequately address the problem of the Taliban and al-Qaeda both in Afghanistan and in the region and how to turn the former towards cooperation.

There are lots of problems to some of HAK’s specifics, including how to achieve them in the face of historic and growing animosity of the regional powers, which will be a major challenge.  But, one can see a common interest by all the concerned players for a stable and fairly secure Afghanistan that threatens no major actor in the region. Further, the idea of some multilateral presence as an enforcement mechanism and, I believe, accompanied by a major effective program of assistance that can provide some real hope of prosperity to the Afghans, might have half a chance.

Kissinger’s concluding statement is also worth thinking about as we continue “Rethinking National Security”:

“After America’s withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan and the constraint to our strategic reach produced by the revolution in Egypt, a new definition of American leadership and America’s national interest is inescapable. A sustainable regional settlement in Afghanistan would be a worthy start.”

That is what we need to be thinking, no matter what the outcome is in Afghanistan or Iraq, since the fundamental global landscape is quickly changing under our feet and in increasingly dangerous ways. In reality, despite the naysayers, American power and influence will endure for generations for either ill or good, and we can be our own worst enemy or the leader towards a better, safer world.  If not us and other like minded nations, then who?

By Harry C. Blaney III.

11 thoughts on “Kissinger and the Exit Strategy from Afghanistan

  1. Bob Lamoree November 10, 2011 / 3:20 PM

    Long term goals and solutions to accomplish them are not always possible, and I’m wondering if this isn’t the situation in the Afghanistan/Pakistan area. I also wonder just what our national interests are that (a) got us there, (b) provoked the hatred of us, and (c) where we go from here.
    When I look at where we’ve been and have since departed, I think of Vietnam. Are we better off to have gotten out? Are the Vietnamese better off because we got out? I suspect the answer to those question is yes . . . even though our departure was not pretty.
    Is America’s role to democratize the world? Do places like Afghanistan, Iraq, Egypt really want democracy . . . democracy as we understand it. How much can occupiers, which we are, accomplish when most of the occupied don’t want us there?
    Mr. Kissinger’s four conditions/pre-requisites look good on paper, but in all honesty, how likely is it that would happen?
    Call me a dove, but I think I’m a realist.

    Bob Lamoree

  2. Paul Sack November 2, 2011 / 1:06 PM

    Mr. Blaney,

    So you agree that “instability” has taken the place of the USSR as the enemy we must fight–now that the Cold War is over–and provides the post-Cold War justification for huge military budgets and interventions.

  3. Harry Blaney November 1, 2011 / 3:30 PM

    Mr. Sack,
    It has been my experience that conflict (which is like “war”), poverty, and human rights abuses do, in time, lead to larger conflict or “war.” There are too many examples we have seen over the last century. Instability is an outward consequence of these conditions. And we need to address them to prevent war…The tools are known as peace making/keeping, development assistance, preventive diplomacy and international legal and, when necessary, military intervention against massive human rights abuse and genocide. In which case the international community has asserted at last an interests and right to act. I note recently the action in Libya and efforts, still weak, in Darfur, South Sudan, and in other parts of Africa.

  4. Paul Sack July 12, 2011 / 7:58 PM

    Mr. Blaney: Do you really believe that instability brings more “conflict, poverty and human rights abuses” than war itself?

  5. Harry Blaney July 12, 2011 / 4:58 PM

    Instability is not an “enemy” it is what comes when we are indifferent to what is going on in the world…and instability brings conflict, poverty and human rights abuses. Does not America have an interest in a prosperous, stable, democratic, humane and safe world for all?

  6. Paul Sack July 5, 2011 / 1:28 PM

    Aaaah, “stability” and “instability.” The words appear three times in the last paragraph of the most recent posting. A savvy professor pointed out several years ago that, with the end of the Cold War, the Pentagon needed a new enemy to justify itself; and “instability” became that enemy.

  7. Harry C. Blaney III July 5, 2011 / 10:36 AM

    I agree with the views of Devin McCarthy. Very few issues in my experience, (I did policy planning for six years in the Department of State’s Secretary’s Policy Planning shop) and there were few “easy answers” to most serious conflict issues during those Cold War times. I think, frankly, if we had stayed in Afghanistan after the Soviets pulled out and did a serious effort at helping develop a decent society and government, we would not have seen the disastrous results we find today.

    But nothing is certain. What is certain is that we need to try our instruments of diplomacy and “soft power” whenever there is a danger of larger conflict and regional instability…and that includes Pakistan.

    I do not agree that Pakistan is not a serious concern…..Paul Sack noted the “bomb” and I am sure remembers its history and what damage the Pakistan nuclear people did to instability far from that region. It is worth “engagement” in that region to find some method to obtain mutual security and stability (today’s headlines on ISI illustrate the challenge)…but I am not arguing for continued war as a solution…that needs to be clear. We should and can be smarter than that. It is not a choice of “isolationism” which often ends in major conflicts in areas of trouble, nor is it endless war….We need more tools to build peace and stability–at a much lower cost than war.

    We welcome comments!!!!!

  8. Devin McCarthy - National Security Intern June 27, 2011 / 4:13 PM

    It may be possible for a handful of people in a house to blow up a bomb in Afghanistan, but developing and running an international terrorist organization like Al Qaeda requires a home base. History has demonstrated that such organizations are much more likely to take hold in failed states where there is little or no government (Afghanistan) or complicit members of the government (Pakistan). It is strongly in the U.S.’s interests that Afghanistan not revert to a situation in which it is a fertile ground for terrorist organization.

    Furthermore, U.S. should not totally disregard the good of the Afghan people when formulating its Afghanistan policy, presuming that it cares about the best interests of the rest of the world in addition to the best interests of the U.S.

    I agree with Harry Blaney that responsible withdrawal is the best course. The sooner NATO troops stop giving the Taliban a reason to fight, the sooner the process of building a stable and peaceful Afghan state can begin.

  9. Paul Sack June 21, 2011 / 1:26 AM

    1) How can we possibly prevent terrorists from using places in Afghanistan or anywhere else for attacks on out country? Plotting a terrorist act requires only a handful of people and can be done in any house. Fighting a big war in Afghanistan cannot prevent terrorists from getting together in a house and plotting a terrorist action. Terrorism is cheap.

    2) What “real interests” do we have in Afghanistan and/or Pakistan (other than preventing disseminatin of The Bomb? I do not believe than anything that happens in Afghanistan or Pakistan has any effect on Americans living in the U.S. and would like to hear some examples.

    –Paul Sack

  10. Harry Blaney June 20, 2011 / 10:46 PM

    Don’t want to disappoint Mr. Sack, but I do not favor staying in Afghanistan for decades. But I do think we need to withdraw in such a way that does the least damage to that nation and its people and does not permit terrorists to use that country again for attacks against this country or other nations.

    But the larger point is that we have real interests in Pakistan, and Afghanistan is part of the security of the entire region including Pakistan. Better we have in place some kind of regional settlement and understanding than to leave and have conflict and chaos behind.

    There is a difference between irresponsible withdrawal and responsible withdrawal and as HAK notes, and as I believe, we can and should make an effort to have our troops withdraw under the best conditions and leave behind some measure of security for the people of the region and reduce the chances that terrorists will gain the upper hand in both Afghanistan and Pakistan — what them will we have gained for all the blood that has been lost! It is not likely we will withdraw any faster than the 2014 deadline but we can move faster than DOD wants, but it should be balanced by a larger diplomatic settlement.

  11. Paul Sack June 17, 2011 / 12:51 AM

    Mr. Blaney would have U.S. troops in Afghanistan until there is “a coalition government or division of territories among the contending parties.” Otherwise, he says, the result could be “increased conflict and internal chaos.” His recommendation would very likely keep U.S. troops fighting in Afghanistan for decades. I think the U.S. has no need to be concerned about chaos in Afghanistan and should just get out.

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