US presidential election and the future of Afghanistan by Salih Doğan*
President Barack Obama, Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney (Photos: Reuters)
The American people will vote in the upcoming presidential election on Nov. 6. If the current president, Barack Obama, wins the election, its importance for the US will only be symbolic. Yet, it is of great importance for Afghanistan. Because, according to the NATO Chicago Summit Declaration on Afghanistan, the Afghan War is still America's war in the first place and NATO countries are willing to escape from it as soon as possible.
The US presidential election, in terms of its process and result, is of great importance to Afghanistan for many reasons. One of the main factors that could affect the election is the downward support of the American people for the Afghan War. Obama's wish to end the second war that his predecessor, George W. Bush, launched is also a major motivational factor. Republican Party presidential candidate Mitt Romney's Afghanistan policy should be considered as well. The resistance of the US Congress and the Department of Defense to the decisions taken by the administration regarding Afghanistan will also form the future of Afghanistan. In addition, the latest developments between the US, Afghanistan and the Taliban should be mentioned.
The American people
According to an AP-GfK poll, US public support for the 11-year Afghan War has hit a new low. Only 27 percent of respondents said they back the war in Afghanistan, while 66 percent said they oppose it. It has become irritating for the people of the US, who have had to confront problems such as a deteriorating economy and unemployment in recent years, to pay taxes for the war in Afghanistan. While the Americans celebrated the death of Osama bin Laden in the streets more than a year ago, today they mostly believe that they got what they needed. However, the US administration, invading Afghanistan without an exit strategy 11 years ago, seems stuck between the expectations of the public and the reality on the ground in Afghanistan.
Barack Obama vs. Mitt Romney
Obama will probably not make a radical move or give any statement concerning Afghanistan that would put the presidential election at risk. As stated in the declaration of the NATO Summit in Chicago, the mutual commitments and engagements between Afghanistan and NATO countries will go on as previously outlined by the Kabul Conference, the İstanbul Process, the Lisbon Summit and the Bonn Conference. Therefore, if nothing goes wrong, Obama will stick to the plan and reduce the number of US troops to 68,000 by September.
If he is elected, Mitt Romney will definitely not stick to Obama's policy on Afghanistan. Romney has already criticized Obama for making the death of bin Laden one of the main talking points in his election campaign. By commenting on the Obama administration's public announcement with regard to the decision to withdraw combat troops from Afghanistan, Romney pointed out that letting your enemy know the date when you will pull out your troops is preposterous. He has also adopted a different approach on talks with the Taliban by noting that the US should not negotiate with the Taliban, but defeat them. Romney also differed with Obama on the withdrawal of US troops and has said that he would not speed this up and that the full withdrawal should happen only when US generals approve the move, or as soon as the mission is accomplished. Supposing that Romney wins the presidential race, it would not be surprising to see the US become isolated on the issue of Afghanistan and new problems emerge between the US, NATO, Afghanistan and the Taliban.
US Congress and Department of Defense
There will probably be no political dynamism with regard to Afghanistan while the US is in election mode. How about if Obama wants to use diplomatic channels during the election, which coincides with one of the most sensitive periods in the Afghan War? Herein lie the "red lines" of the US Congress and Department of Defense. Within the scope of the proximity talks with the Taliban this past year, the US administration has agreed to the transfer of five former high-ranking Taliban officials from Guantanamo to Qatar. The secretary of defense had not given approval to this transfer, citing security reasons. The most important reason behind this decision is Pentagon's unwillingness to loosen its strict rules with respect to Guantanamo prisoners. Even if he keeps his seat, it will be very difficult for Obama to overcome the Pentagon's stiff resistance and produce a solution to the issue.
Afghan presidential election 2014
One of the possible obstacles to the withdrawal plan is the Afghan presidential election scheduled for 2014. The future plans of the US and NATO are based on the re-election of Hamid Karzai. Yet, if we recall the problems experienced in the previous presidential election, there is a great risk that the elections will coincide with the last period of the withdrawal of all troops. In order to successfully end the Afghan War with peace talks, the best timing for both presidential elections would be 2013. Even if that seems impossible for the US, it should be an option for Afghanistan. Thus, the US and NATO will gain time to know the addressee and plan accordingly when 2014 ends.
Negotiations with the Taliban
Considering the fact that even the Taliban negotiators have begun to express that "peace talks" are the only way out of this war and that they do not want another civil war, this constitutes an important turning point for everyone. Since a cousin of the Taliban's chief negotiator stated that the Taliban's hostility to the US will not continue forever and that they will eventually have good relations, both parties cannot ignore these statements while they assess their positions towards each other. However, if the peace talks don't reach a conclusion, the main loser will not be the Taliban but the US, NATO and, most importantly, Afghanistan. It will be long before the Taliban takes back the authority of regions that were entirely left to Afghan security forces. Therefore, the US administration should seek a solution in the political arena and not in the battlefield. Yet everything may not go as planned until the end of 2014.
If things don't go well and NATO and the US are unable to provide support to Afghanistan, post-2014 Afghanistan will not be very different than what the Soviet Union left behind in 1989. The only difference will be some of the players in the civil war.
It won't be easy to set a budget of $4.1 billion for almost 230,000 Afghan security forces who will be in the field after 2014. It is being extremely optimistic that Afghanistan could provide this budget by its own means between 2014 and 2024 as its economy will increasingly improve while the share of NATO and the US will gradually decrease.
At this point, the assumption of “everything would run smoothly” may lead to much larger problems in the future for NATO countries. The US and NATO officials should prepare a back-up plan. It is obvious that the withdrawal of NATO and US troops from Afghanistan does not mean the end of war alone. Otherwise, it would not be called an "exit strategy" but an "exit without a strategy." Thus, when the last day of 2014 arrives, the Afghan War will only come to an end as Obama said, "As we understand it" -- whatever that means.
*Salih Doğan is pursuing a Ph.D. at the School of Politics and International Relations, Keele University.