afghanistan: the best way to peace

Anatol Lieven reviews recent books in Afghanistan: The best way to peace. But, even more notable is his commentary on the history of the conflict, the current dividing lines, difficulties, tensions, and prospects for the future.

It is exceptionally important that US policymakers read the book by Mohammad Khan, because there is a strong tendency in US official circles and in the US media to treat the Pakistani state as the enemy in Afghanistan, and to assume that Taliban resistance in Afghanistan would largely disappear if Pakistan could somehow be bullied or bribed into submission. This misunderstands the deep popular sympathy on the part of the Pashtuns on both sides of the border for the Taliban, who are seen among many Pakistani Pashtuns as a legitimate resistance force. A perspective such as Tomsen’s risks embroiling the US in a conflict with Pakistan that would greatly increase the terrorist threat to the West.

In these circumstances, it is highly probable that government-equipped military forces of one group or another will sooner or later stage a takeover of much of the country. The willingness of the US Congress and public to go on subsidizing Afghanistan would then be gravely undermined. If the coup were seen to be led by Tajik officers, there would be a counter-coup by Pashtun officers, and so on. If the Pashtun parts of the army lost in Kabul, many would defect to the Taliban—replicating in many ways the pattern of the civil wars that followed the Najibullah regime’s fall in 1992.

The Afghan civil war would then intensify drastically and continue indefinitely. The Taliban could not capture even Kabul, let alone the non-Pashtun areas to the west and north, in the face of the opposition from Tajiks and other ethnic groups backed by the US, India, and Russia; but the dividing lines between the different territories would be drawn in battle, and amid horrendous bloodshed.

The pursuit of a peace settlement should be combined with the discussion of a post-Karzai political order in Kabul, and with an Afghan national debate on reform of the constitution, which is now widely recognized to be deeply flawed and far too centralized, and which was never truly approved by the Afghan people. The first step to peace with the Taliban therefore should be to acknowledge their right to participate in a genuine national debate on a new Afghan constitution.

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