Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The Complexity of Leaving Afghanistan

In trying to follow the election in Pakistan this past weekend, I found it very hard to get to any signal in a setting of media noise; and I am afraid that this was one of those cases in which the BBC was having as much trouble finding the signal as any of the American media were (even if the BBC was probably trying harder). Thus, I decided to hold off on my own opinions until Monday, when Ahmed Rashid posted "Pakistan: A New Beginning?" on NYRBlog. Rashid would rather try to provide a readable account of the full complexity of the situation than allow his readers the advantage of a predigested judgment from an "authorized" source.

What I did not expect was that Rashid's analysis would include implications for next year's withdrawal of United States troops from Afghanistan. I was glad to see this, since it is about time that the American public realize that this withdrawal is far from a simple matter of "sending the boys home" (with apologies for evoking a sexist slogan). As a result, the following may have been the most important paragraph in Rashid's post:
The Taliban now control wide swathes of northwestern Pakistan, which is largely inhabited by Pashtuns—the same ethnic group that lives in Afghanistan and from whom the Taliban on both sides of the border have emerged. Peshawar, the capital of the province Khyber Pakthunkhwa (KP), is virtually under siege; the army is fighting the Taliban in a valley just a few miles from the city. Imran Khan has won a majority of seats in the KP provincial assembly, which means his party will now govern the province. That will put to the test his election promises of ending the Taliban insurgency in the province and forcing the US to end its drone campaign in KP. However, many Pakistanis fear that Khan’s policies will mean surrendering to the Taliban’s extreme demands for Islamic law rather than standing up to them. Khan’s capture of KP is also certain to worry the US government, which views Khan as a Taliban sympathizer. When US troops withdraw from Afghanistan next year, they will need to use a road that traverses KP province to reach the port of Karachi, so the cooperation of the KP provincial government will be critical.
Withdrawal involves far more than just troops; and, when we start to assess just how much hardware has been provided to support those troops, we may have a better idea of just how deep a hole we dug for ourselves when we decided to go there in the first place.

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