Our Clock is Ticking

Ten years after the beginning of the US-led intervention, American troops now prepare to leave. Afghan insurgents would probably tell you that foreign invasions always end that way; that Afghanistan is called the “graveyard of empires” for a reason. The same insurgents would also say that the Americans are no better than the Brits or the Soviets, so there is no reason to believe that the former would succeed where the later failed. Journalist Jonathan Landay recently argued that the “Taliban might be lying low,” waiting for the Western troops to leave. As a captured Taliban fighter reportedly phrased it: “You [NATO] have the watches, we [the insurgents] have the time.” Whether or not this sentence reflects the reality of military operations on the ground, I believe that it mirrors the general mood in the country. Hope is long gone. Pessimism is running high, both among Afghans and US decision makers (see previous post). As American troops prepare to leave, the Afghans who have opposed the Taliban start wondering what the future holds. Everyone in Afghanistan knew all along that the US would not stay indefinitely.  But now that President Obama gave a departure date, it became hard for us to ignore. Not only do they have the time, but our clock is ticking. As Alissa Rubin pointed out in a recent article, “the Rabbani assassination (…) reminded people of [the insurgents’] ability to shape the next chapter in the country’s history.”

Both Landay and Rubin report that the Taliban are adapting to the changing international environment. They might be losing the capacity to control large chunks of territory, but it does not mean that they are any weaker. They still have the capacity to destabilize entire regions, if not the entire country. Similarly, former Northern Alliance commanders (who no longer claim territorial control) exert power in different ways (patronage networks, political influence, etc.). They, like the Taliban, are getting ready for what will be coming next, which, if worse comes to worst, will be an open civil war. As the establishment of US permanent bases is still under discussion, former commanders start remobilizing their dormant military networks and are getting ready to fight, if necessary. While loads of Afghans would not mind getting rid of former Jihadis, everybody in Afghanistan knows that, at the end of the day, when the Americans leave the country to its fate, they will be the only ones able to protect them from a Taliban comeback. Whether we like it or not, in times of uncertainty, people back the stronger actors. Now the real question is whether the US will allow the renewal of a full-scale civil war, or whether they will keep pushing for some sort of power-sharing agreement, in spite of the recent events (see previous post).

About Afghanopoly

I am an Assistant Professor of peace and conflict studies at Radboud University's Centre for International Conflict Analysis and Management (CICAM). I completed my PhD in Political Science at Northwestern University and Sciences Po under the supervision of Will Reno and Bertrand Badie. Among other things, I teach students about the politics of international intervention in Afghanistan and elsewhere. My research focuses on the political strategies that Afghan strongmen use to consolidate and legitimize their authority. I am particularly interested in how these actors manage to conduct their own forms of international relations. My field research brings me in contact with Afghan community leaders, politicians, diplomats and foreign military officers.
This entry was posted in Beyond the News. Bookmark the permalink.

25 Responses to Our Clock is Ticking

  1. patriotpaul says:

    Hope for what? If all hope is gone, I am interested to know what was the hope for Afghanistan that is now gone. Hope that the country would instantly produce a Western style democracy in the middle of the Islamic world out of a culture that predominantly exists in pre-Age of Exploration circumstances? Hope that the Afghan people would somehow put aside decades of war and centuries of tribal divisions to come together at the command of the International Community. Or is it simply the hope in our ability to manage our own expectations?

    These questions, though somewhat rhetorical in nature, are nonetheless the crux of the problem of Afghanistan today. Suppose one was to assemble a baseball team to join Major League Baseball. From all around the world, experts are brought together to help form the team with the intention of starting play the following season. However, the only players available to man the team are school children. While excited at the opportunity, the children would be clearly lacking the capacity to compete at the highest level regardless of the expectations set by the “experts.” Though a crude supposition and hardly all encompassing, the fact remains that the International Community has been attempting to field a team with players totally lacking the basic capacity to play the game while expecting instant results.
    After years of training and development the Afghan team is beginning to shape up but is still years, if not decades away, from being able to compete on the level of the rest of the league. Consequently, the level of pessimism coming out of Afghanistan is a function of our unmet expectations. And those expectations were a function of perceptions that failed to take into consideration the circumstances on the ground. Military planners are constantly reminded to manage expectations; to under promise and over deliver. It is now painfully obvious that our adventure into the “graveyard of empires” has fallen victim to our own lack of attention to our own advice.

    General George S. Patton wrote, “One does not plan and then try to make circumstance fit those plans. I think the difference between success and failure in high command depends upon the ability, or lack of it, to do just that.” – War As I Knew It. 1947. The American experience in Afghanistan is rife with examples of leadership lacking the ability to make plans fit the circumstances. Expectations in Afghanistan were set unattainably high and resourced for failure. So now today we are faced with a set of circumstances that is being met with pessimistic hopelessness.

    The truth is that hope is not gone for those who understand that the reality of the Afghan experience is one that will require a long term commitment to development of human capacity; a generational commitment to building institutions from the top down while simultaneously addressing the human tragedy of the Afghan people from the bottom up. What is needed is the leadership necessary to articulate that the situation in Afghanistan is such that anything less will result in a reversion back to the days of civil war and tribal warlordism, and ultimately to a total failure of our national efforts to combat terrorism and the conditions that lead to the devastation experienced in Afghanistan throughout the 1980s and 90s.

    The circumstances today in Afghanistan are such that the Taliban will never be completely defeated or isolated to the point that they no longer present a concern. They are Pashtun. They have been and will always be tied to the land and will command a place in the power sharing arraignment. Planning for dialogue between the Taliban leadership and the existing political power brokers in Afghanistan is required. However, if the Taliban fails to demonstrate positive indicators, at some point the U.S. must take unilateral steps to completely eliminate the threat to stability in Afghanistan. Granted, that may not be possible given the complex regional/tribal dynamics in what can otherwise be described as Pushtunistan; that land that encompasses eastern and southern Afghanistan along with much of western Pakistan.
    Additionally, the circumstances in the east and south of Afghanistan are not the same throughout the country, particularly in the north. Some analysts have even considered a bifurcated approach to the problem. Robert D. Blackwill has proposed a “Plan B in Afghanistan” in the Jan/Feb 2011 edition of Foreign Affairs, one in which nation-building in the north is complimented with counterterrorism in the east and south. Gains have been made that some consider irreversible, or at least that an irreversible momentum now exists in parts of the country. Holding and building on those gains while preventing the forces of instability to gain traction in the parts of the country that have embraced the post-9/11 nation is a solid starting point for developing a plan for the continued international intervention.

    It is true that everyone in Afghanistan, from the warlords and the tribal elders to the Taliban and the new middle class that has developed in the post-9/11 world is certainly preparing for the coming departure of U.S. troops. But what are they planning and preparing for, and under what circumstances? The overall commitment to the development of Afghanistan over the past 10 years has forever changed both the present and the future of Afghanistan. In other words the circumstances have changed. This is not the Afghanistan of August 2001. And the notion that the International Community is going to turn off all the lights, lock the doors and go home come 2014 is unreasonable, just ask anyone who has ever been to Kandahar Air Field (KAF) or Bahgram Air Field (BAF) and seen what a global community of 30,000 inhabitants looks like. Combat operations coming to an end is just the beginning of the next phase in the long term development of this new nation. Planning for it under the new set of circumstances while not forgetting the circumstances that will never change will afford the Afghan people the best chance for creating a sustainable future.

    Hopefully optimistic.

    • Afghanopoly says:


      I hear your point. I agree with you that one has to wonder what that hope was for. The lack of a clearly defined endstate for Afghanistan that would be shared by most of the actors involved in the conflict has been one of the main problems from day 1. Having said that, it doesn’t mean that there was no hope. Hope was present, at least among Afghans and US policymakers. Hope for a brighter future for Afghanistan. Just hope.

      I find your parallel with a Major League Baseball team interesting, and symptomatic of the way the international community has been treating the Afghans: like children. Trying to build a bureaucratic Weberian state along Western lines in Afghanistan is utopian. Instead of considering the Afghan political environment as disfunctioning, we should realize that it has its own rationale. Maybe it is not disorder but order of a different kind. Instead of trying to force Afghans to play baseball, perhaps we should just focus on building a buzkashi team. Buzkashi might not be America’s favorite pastime, but the Afghans are good at it. If we really try, maybe we can have them play it in a way that is acceptable to us.

      • patriotpaul says:


        I completely agree with both of your points. First that there was hope and second that we are trying to create a government that reflects our perception of order instead of understanding the local order and building around it. My experience tells me that there is and has been hope in Afghanistan, and I am not saying that there never was. Rather, I am arguing that the hope that WE had was based on unmanageable expectations and plans that were created outside of the existing circumstances, hence the baseball analogy. Clearly the Afghan people are not children, in fact I can personally attest to the incredible depth of character that exists among them. Nevertheless, at nearly all levels of the society, they are not equipped with the capacity to operate a fully functioning western style government, especially at the sub-national level. There are many qualified technocrats that are holding leadership positions, however, where they are sorely lacking is throughout the ranks of the bureaucracy that is expected to deliver services and provide security.

        I appreciate your buzkashi example. And I think that it speaks to exactly what did not take place during the initial post war planning for the creation of the new Afghan state. In other words, we were trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. What we ended up with is an Afghan constitution that looks great on paper, creates expectations that appease the West and confound the Afghans, and has led to a situation where the people still feel that their government cannot deliver on the promises they have made.

        Ultimately what will be required is for the bottom up approach that concentrates on education and delivery of essential services stemming from the district centers if the Afghan people are ever going to have the capacity to sustain democracy. Otherwise, the least best option may be to cut our losses, and install a strongman that can subdue the insurgency through brute force.

  2. rmc1977 says:

    Well, I for one would agree…..hope is long gone. But what were we really hoping to accomplish? Did the U.S. really believe it could bring political and economic stability to a country torn by war and ruled by extemists? Although I suspect some minor improvements have been made the overall picture is bleak. The Taliban still exist, corruption runs rampant and extemists are just biding their time. If the country does not break into civil war we will end up seeing a somewhat refined Taliban regime return to share power. So, if we were in fact hoping to bring poltical and economic stability we may have in fact succeeded to a point. But, I doubt the players poised to take power are favored or in the best interests of the U.S..

  3. bjorkified says:

    I agree with the point in the article stating that Taliban may be on hold, but they are not weakening , per se… With the ‘help’ of our troops’ presence, they can refine their tactics and wait until we leave to break into smaller groups and go about rallying in smaller areas to start. It could actually lead to a resurgence in power, albeit a much longer wait for that to happen. I do feel the United States cannot afford (literally and figuratively) to stay in Afghanistan for much longer, and unfortunately this is what it would take to sort out the myriad of power struggles throughout a very fragmented nation.

  4. While trying to find some different perspectives on Afghanistan, I came across an article a few months old by Brian M. Downing “The Great Afghan Carve-Up”
    which analyzes the distinct geo-political interests of Pakistan, China, Iran, and Turkey each have in a post-withdrawal situation. The article also emphasizes the virtues of Hamid Karzai. Karzai has formed strategic connections to anti-Taliban Pashtun tribes, which may mitigate concerns about their re-emergence. The Taliban will most likely move out from the shadows after the US withdrawal, but they may not have the ability to rule as they did pre-2001.

    I favor the US military withdrawal, for both our interests and those of Afghanistan. We have no ability to create a stable peace in that nation, indeed no Western power has ever done so. The UN should remain involved, as should the neighboring governments. US and Western humanitarian agencies should still work at all levels for education and economic development.

  5. hennarot says:

    As detail in the “Our Clock is Ticking” posting, the outlook is grim in Afghanistan.

    The text and various supplementary readings consider steps that could have been taken to, at the very least, provide the Afghan people the opportunity to decide their own future. With a ticking clock, the amount that can be accomplished before time runs out is limited. This leaves me wondering, what can we achieve by 2014? Certainly there is some truncated course of action we can take to bolster security before then.

    Without such efforts, the power struggle that ensues as a result of the US troop withdrawal, has the potential to lead back to a state of civil war.

  6. Afghanopoly says:

    I just read a great article by Aryn Baker in Time Magazine. Aryn spent almost ten years in Afghanistan and explains how and why she progressively lost hope. It’s comprehensive and very touching. I recommend you check it out.


  7. Several points to consider as you continue this debate:

    1. There can be no solution of any kind for Afghanistan as long as the insurgents – the Quetta Shura, the Haqqanis, Hekmatiyar’s Hezb Islami and a slew of smaller Afghan and Pakistani outfits that are fighting in Afghanistan – are able to maintain sanctuaries, training camps, and recruiting and fund-raising mechanisms in Pakistan. The Obama administration has no coherent strategy for dealing with this problem or any related aspect of the broken relationship with Pakistan. And the Pakistani military remains convinced that it can “managed” the “good” Taliban in Afghanistan while crushing the “bad” Taliban at home.

    2. The US must withdraw for all the reasons posters have stated above. But it cannot do so without almost certainly dooming Afghanistan to a re-ignition of the civil/ethnic war that the US intervention in 2001 stilled but failed to resolve. Former Northern Alliance leaders are preparing for this scenario, worried that Karzai and the US are looking to bring the Quetta Shura and the Haqqanis, who they see as Pakistani proxies, into a power-sharing deal whose terms they are not being consulted on. They feel ignored by the U.S. and Karzai and aggrieved. And well they should. They represent 60 percent of the population that dominates the northern half of the country, including Kabul, and despite Rabbani’s chairmanship of the High Peace Council, some key players like Saleh, Abdullah, Zia Masoud, Dostum and Mohaqeq say they haven’t been sufficiently consulted by Karzai or the US on the reconciliation process and their red lines. These may be old guard, but they still count enormously. Fears that a renewed conflict is coming is all that I heard about from every major and minor politician, political analyst, tribal leader and ordinary Afghan I met during my reportorial visit there in July and August.

    3. Unlike the pre-U.S. invasion conflict, however, a renewed conflict pitting the Pashtun-dominated Taliban versus a reborn minority-dominated Northern Alliance holds the potential for destabilizing the entire region and endangering global security. Pakistan would likely back the former and India – as well as Iran and the Central Asian dictatorships – would likely back the latter, as they did secretly prior to the US invasion. There is no way an Indian government will politically survive another Mumbai without retaliating against Pakistan, especially if it turned out that the attackers were trained in a Pakistan-patronized, Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. Moreover, much of today’s Taliban is not your father’s Taliban. The U.S. night raids have taken a lot of the older Talibs off the map, and they’re being replaced by younger, more radicalized men inculcated in bin Laden-ism and international jihad in radical madrassas in Pakistan. There is a danger that once in control of Afghanistan or large parts of it, they will then turn on their patron and look to extend their “emirate” back into Pakistan.

    4. An Indo-Pakistan proxy war in Afghanistan raises the danger of a direct conflict between two nuclear-armed foes that have already fought four wars and numerous skirmishes over the past 64 years and which maintain tens of thousands of troops and a preponderance of their heavy weapons systems along their border. Beyond this, a renewed conflict in Afghanistan could send millions of Afghan refugees pouring again across the borders into Pakistan and Iran, neither of which can now afford to shelter them. The instability produced in Pakistan would further destabilize a nuclear-ized country already in the throes of a slow political and financial meltdown and several concurrent sectarian conflicts. Putting aside the danger of loose nuclear warheads, Pakistan is completing the construction of a fourth plutonium production reactor and is producing larger quantities of PU faster than any other country in the world, meaning that it is also accumulating large quantities of nuclear waste useful for dirty bombs. All of this is, of course, a worst case scenario, and may never come to pass. But all of this is a real risk.

    5. Finally, the U.S. troop draw down isn’t only being driven by U.S. war exhaustion and the federal deficit. There’s a presidential election next year. And the horrific scenario I painted above is not part of U.S. domestic political calculations.

    Food for thought.

  8. Matt says:

    Thanks for joining, Jonathan.

    The biggest question mark for me is, what would an Indo-Pakistan proxy war in Afghanistan look like. Pakistan obviously has the fighters in the tribal areas to leverage as non-state actors, but what can India use on the ground? Or is it a question of India pushing for a strategic alliance (a’la last week) with the Karzai government, to which Pakistan responds by opening the floodgates with ISI supported Pakistani Taliban? If that’s the case, I’m not sure how India can escalate.

  9. Matt says:

    I wanted to follow-up with this link from FP.com’s daily brief from this morning. Key takeaway for me was found in the third graf regarding the push for talks between the Haqqanis and the U.S. This is for anyone (like me) who was questioning how loose the alliance might be between the Haqqanis and the Af-Pak Taliban.

    “A senior Haqqani Network commander told Reuters Tuesday that the group would not participate in talks with the United States alone, and that any solution in Afghanistan would have to come through “talks with the Taliban shura.”

  10. eldiablo2011 says:

    Interesting story on NPR.org where Clinton confirmed BBC reports that last summer the US met with the Haqqanis. It is interesting because the US has always publicly stated that negotiating with terrorist organizations, clearly that is not the case. Anyway thought it was germane to the discussion since it shows a shift in US policy.


  11. Matt says:

    But when the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan is on the Terrorist Designation List, and the Haqqanis are so closely tied to them that they operate train/support together and refuse to negotiate with the Karzai government (or NATO) without their inclusion — how do we effectively separate them? They’re so closely tied together at this point, that unless we can find a way to fracture that alliance, my opinion is that they’re effectively one (coalition) group.

  12. rexrigby says:

    On the subject of negotiating with terrorists; whether the Haqqanis are on the terrorist list or not, it may be important to shift policy especially since this is a very different war. I am not suggesting a policy shift, however, I do not think anything should be ruled out; everything is not necessarily so black and white. If I were kidnapped journalist or soldier I would certainly want someone to negotiate on my behalf, (just as a crude example)

    Another point I want to mention is, I cannot help but think after learning so much about the Taliban in the last several weeks, that even if the U.S. had remained focused on Afghanistan prior to invading Iraq, the Taliban would still have resurfaced at some point. I always thought, as many did, that pulling attention away from Afghanistan early on was a mistake. However, mistake or not, the Taliban does not seem to be going away. Wouldn’t they have still come back once the U.S. left?

  13. El Diablo says:

    I always thought the goal was Bin Laden, and the Taliban. Now I think their existence was a distraction. And anything I have learned in this class is that at least early on the Pakistan was willing to assist in this area, as it related to low ranking members of Al Qaeda. Would we have killed Bin Laden if we had not invaded? I don’ t think so. Was it worth a trillion dollars? Yes. If you are measuring this conflict in terms of who state building this war was, is and will be a failure. If the goal was to kill Bin Laden then it was a success. However that being said I can’t stop thinking about the Princess Bride. Do’s and don’ts, “Never get involved in a land war in Asia” Did we learn nothing from Vietnam?

  14. El Diablo says:

    Iran speaks. Interesting comments from Ahmadinejad in regards to the US war in Afghanistan.


  15. El Diablo says:

    Great OPed NY Times story regarding measuring success in Afghanistan.


  16. El Diablo says:

    Based on what we have read and discussed so far one other thought continues to emerge in my mind with regards to Pakistan’s position. It is cheaper to fund and support the lead group in Afghanistan, then it is to attempt to govern or control their western borders. Even if they wanted to they don’t have the required resources to make it happen. Without the ability to defend their borders they must participate in the process in Afghanistan. To ask Pakistan to jeopardize their influence is not logical based on their position. To expect them to share our aims is not logical, and is also unrealistic.

  17. El Diablo says:

    Interesting short news story regarding Pakistan’s view of current US Policy and their official opinion of it.

    http://tribune.com.pk/story/284638/us-demand-to-do-more-is-against-ground-realities-khar/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=twitter&utm_campaign=Feed: PakNatSecNewsWatch (PakNatSec NewsWatch)

  18. Matt says:

    Not sure if anyone has access to it, as I only have the print edition, but today’s Financial Times has an outstanding spread on the Haqqani relationship with Pakistan and al Qaeda. Of note, the article concludes that it’s too late for Pakistan to find reliable new friends in Afghanistan, and that they’re leveraging their relationship with the Haqqanis (and the Taliban) to fight a proxy cold war with Indian on Afghani soil.

    Solid article and very much relevant to our discussions.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s