Obama is meeting with various advisers at length to determine a strategy for Afghanistan. However, this is truly a complex question with far reaching effects. The realities are grim, and seem counter-intuitive to any strategy whatsoever. Unfortunately Obama committed early on to Afghanistan as "the good war." A bad choice in my opinion, but that campaign rhetoric commitment is part of the anchor which now is likely to hold him to certain constraints.
George Bush invaded Afghanistan to engage in regime change. The justification for the massive assault on Afghanistan was that the Taliban held government would not turn over Osama bin Laden. After running the Taliban out of Kabul, ultimately the oil industry's choice Karzai (former UNOCAL adviser) was installed as the President of Afghanistan. It did not take long for him to be labeled "The Mayor of Kabul."
After a contested election, Karzai still holds onto power (complete with charges of the corruptness of his government), and he is still the Mayor of Kabul. And despite eight years of U.S. military assault in Afghanistan, the Taliban still control at least 70% of the country. Yes, seventy percent. Further, it is believed that most of al Qaida are now in Pakistan - not Afghanistan, AND the Taliban influence is spreading in Pakistan as well as Afghanistan.
Meanwhile Pakistan, a nuclear armed nation, is facing its own struggles. On one hand there is unrest in the tribal regions, then there is the ongoing undermining of Pakistan's sovereignty via U.S. ground and drone attacks. Pakistan has in many ways shifted from a go-between/ally of the United States to an almost puppet state. However, it is not a happy puppet state. No sovereign nation can allow the continued aggressive military action by a foreign nation within its boundaries without it generating resistance from the populace - be that Pakistan, Afghanistan, or Iraq.
So the negotiations are on to "deal" with the Pakistan "issue," and the attempts to go after al Qaida, bin Laden, insurgents, the Taliban or whatever enemy is on the rotating menu. An added serious imbalance is the relationship between Pakistan and India. Pakistan becomes a multimodal teeter-totter sitting on a crumbling fulcrum.
The U.S. wants to increase its footprint in Pakistan, and neither the Pakistani government, nor the people, are open to that expansion. However, Pakistan needs money in its coffers and the U.S. is waving "aid" (in the amount of $1.5 billion a year) in front of the government's nose; however, it is aid with tight strings attached. The main stipulation being:
The secretary of State must certify to the US Congress annually that Pakistan's security forces are cutting ties to extremist organizations and that a democratically elected government "exercises effective civilian control of the military." Specifically, the State Department must report on civilian oversight of the military budget process, military involvement in civilian affairs, and even the nitty-gritty of how senior military officers are promoted.
This is a significant given the power of the military in Pakistan, and the long term practice of Pakistan's intelligence organization - the ISI - working with militant groups within both Pakistan and Afghanistan, and being the historic go between for the U.S. and the Taliban. The ISI has been a feared power broker in Pakistan, and one that will play a central role in the success of any agreement between the United States, the Pakistani government, and the Pakistani army.
This situation is only exacerbated by the Pashtun push for independence - even if they must seek the aid of the Taliban. If the Pashtun's align with the Taliban, then any effort to track down al Qaida (if that is truly the target) will be devastating for the civilian population and lead to increased militancy against the U.S. - and Pakistan military presence.
In my opinion, Afghanistan is a lost cause if the Taliban are not intimately involved in stabilization. For all intents and purposes, it is the Taliban who control Afghanistan - not any "elected" government. I am not saying that the people of Afghanistan want the Taliban in power, but thus far eight years of U.S. and international militarism have not made any progress minimizing Taliban power outside of major population centers. Indeed, the current plan seems to pull U.S. forces back into the larger population centers so that they don't slip into Taliban control. At this point, there is a zero sum game in Afghanistan.
As with U.S. intervention using Afghanistan in a proxy war against the Soviet Union, U.S. (and western nations') interest in Afghanistan are not equal to the Afghans determination for their independence. If we had spent the billions we have spent on blowing up Afghanistan on real aid to improve the lives of the people, everyone would be in a much better situation. I strongly suspect, that the power of the Taliban would have eroded, and a much more peaceful region would have been the outcome. No one is hungrier for peace than the people of Afghanistan.
The Afghan refugee situation is largely hidden from the U.S. audience. After the early reporting on refugee camps at the beginning of the invasion, there has been a virtual blackout on refugees in the U.S. media. Refugees International states:
Today more than three million registered refugees remain in exile - 2.1 million in Pakistan and 0.9 million in Iran - and hundreds of thousands more are living abroad to escape economic hardship or targeted violence. Many are now being pressured to return home despite the fact that living conditions are not always secure or humane.
The estimated population of Afghanistan is 28.396 million. An estimated three million are displaced within the region, and certainly a large number are displaced inside Afghanistan, and those who previously fled to Europe are no longer welcome.
Refugees have fled to Italy, France, and the UK. They have survived in places like the Calais "jungle" in France. However, France doesn't want the migrants anymore, and is shutting down Calais. Most of the 1500 people remaining in the crumbling Calais camp are refugees from Afghanistan and Iraq. They have sought asylum, but Europe is getting much stingier in granting it. Despite the economic and personal costs paid by these migrants, Calais will be razed. The asylum seekers will be sent back or sent on.
Other refugees are increasingly seeking haven in Tajikistan, where they struggle to learn Russian and Cyrillic while living in horrible conditions. However, despite the poverty of Tajikistan relative to its neighbors, at least they will accept refugees. So more come hoping to rebuild lives that have been destroyed behind them.
I imagine that should conditions stabilize and improve in Afghanistan, many of the refugees would go home to rebuild their lives. As the displaced within Afghanistan hope for the opportunity to do the same.
Do Afghans Want the Taliban in Power?
From what news reports (largely from the BBC and a few independent journalists) I have seen, people don't relish the idea of the Taliban ruling again. However, the Taliban militias have a great recruiting tool - they can pay. So now the Taliban forces have roughly achieved military strength. One could argue that the Taliban are virtually the only "game" in Afghanistan, which speaks to the woeful failure of the "strategy" of the U.S. (under Bush and Obama) and NATO.