Now it seems that when it comes to Afghanistan, 2014 is the new 2011. But not quite, because even 2014 is not a deadline, merely a goal. The US still holds to the view that it will begin to reduce its troop presence in Afghanistan from 2011 onwards. Many assumed this meant a US pullout just before Americans go to choose a president in late-2012. This weekend the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) summit in Lisbon put its imprimatur on a scenario where the US troops linger on until 2014 before handing over security to an Afghan army. Even here, both Nato and President Barack Obama have made it clear there will be no abandonment of Afghanistan. The truth is that no one, and Washington least of all, knows when and for how long the US will persevere in that country.
Unfortunately, this is a very large known unknown. The US troop presence is the single most important obstacle for the Taliban. In the near-term, the uncertainty of the US’s role is determining the responses of every other player in the Great Game. The most-important players are all betting on early US departure or a half-hearted presence. This includes the Taliban, the Pakistan military and, it seems, also Afghan President Hamid Karzai. The Taliban and their supporters in Rawalpindi, therefore, wage what is a simple war of attrition against the US troops. Mr Karzai’s increasingly unhelpful attitude to the US seems motivated by a similar calculation. The Americans will leave soon and, therefore, Mr Karzai is more interested in wooing Taliban factions and distancing himself from a US campaign destined for defeat.
Mr Obama is reported to have said recently that the AfPak calculus rested on the need to change the mindset of Pakistan. He seems to have diagnosed the regional illness but come up with a prescription that is guaranteed to not heal anything. Pakistan’s mindset has been reinforced by Washington’s “we’re going, we’re staying” flip flop. It is understandable that the US would like to withdraw from Afghanistan as fast as possible. It is also understandable that Mr Obama wants to keep the Democrat’s pacifist wing happy. But these policies are contradictory. To appease the latter, he undermines his ability to do the former in an orderly fashion. Cutting this Gordian knot is what leadership is all about. Unfortunately, that is exactly what has not been evident when it comes to the US and its Af-Pak conundrum.