We have a saying in Afghanistan which translates something like this: An army of 200 good fighting men is better than an army of 100,000 men unwilling to fight. Today, this old truism may hold the key to Afghanistan's very survival, as well as a face-saving withdrawal for the United States and NATO forces.
The withdrawal of coalition forces would not only save face, but also lives and treasure - for the U.S., its NATO allies, Afghanistan and the entire Middle East. But it could only happen with a multi-lateral treaty that guarantees Afghanistan's sovereignty. In exchange, Afghanistan would basically disarm itself, reducing the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) from 350,000 to just a few thousand police and security personnel.
The players in this multi-lateral agreement would have to include Iran, China, Russia, India and Pakistan, as well as Afghanistan and the U.S. Only with their promises of non-aggression and protection could Afghanistan safely disarm.
A pipe dream? Perhaps, but the stakes are too high to dismiss it out of hand. We must at least try.
As an interpreter for the U.S. Army and NATO during the last eight years in Afghanistan, I recognize that the Afghan government, despite receiving billions of dollars in U.S. assistance, is now a failed state. The bulk of Afghanistan's resources are poured into its massive defense and security force, yet insurgents still control of third of the countryside. Afghanistan pushes for still more military assistance and air power, but is that really a path to peace in Afghanistan?
It is not. Afghanistan cannot afford an army the size of its current ANDSF. In his book "The Fragmentation of Afghanistan," Barnett Rubin noted that the country does not generate enough revenue even to pay for its civil servants, and the lack of sufficient funds is causing the government to collapse. And as a consequence, the weakened government invites foreign interference.
Afghanistan has been invaded and occupied countless times throughout history, including incursions by India, Alexander the Great, the Caliphate, Genghis Khan, Timur, the Mughal Empire, various Persian empires, the British Empire, the Sikh Empire and the Soviet Union. NATO coalition forces have been in Afghanistan since 2001.
Pakistan and India currently use Afghanistan as a pawn in their cold war against each other.
Low morale and lack of leadership pose more problems within the ANDSF. The turnover rate is one of the most serious issues faced by Afghan security forces, according to Michael Kugelman, senior associate at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Ineffectiveness and high desertion rates present still more concerns for these overwhelmed and disillusioned forces.
According to recent reporting by Reuters, when the Afghan army took over almost all of its own combat operations, casualties rose 26 percent. In 2015, the Afghan army had to replace about a third of its roughly 170,000 soldiers because of desertions, casualties and low re-enlistment rates.
Since 2001, nearly 22,000 U.S. servicemen and women have been killed or wounded in Afghanistan, and billions of dollars have been spent in the conflict, yet the situation continues to worsen. A policy to stay the course won't work, and even if it could, it seems the U.S. is no longer interested, as it turns its attention toward Russia and the Pacific.
In his Brookings Essay "A Deadly Triangle: Afghanistan, Pakistan India," historian William Dalrymple describes Afghanistan as a battleground between India and Pakistan. "What is certain," Dalrymple writes, "is that the future will be brighter for all three countries caught in a deadly triangle of mutual mistrust and competition if Pakistan and India can come to see the instability of Afghanistan as a common challenge to be jointly managed, rather than as a battlefield on which to continue or, worse, escalate their long and bitter feud."
Keeping a delicate balance between India and Pakistan is the key to peace for Afghanistan. But Afghanistan has no power to do that, so its only hope lies in a regional, multilateral treaty. Afghanistan should call on the United Nations to invite Iran, China, Russia, India and Pakistan to sign a treaty guaranteeing Afghanistan's sovereignty, with a binding commitment that they will not interfere in Afghanistan's domestic affairs.
In exchange, Afghanistan disarms by limiting its security forces to a couple thousand police and security officers. The U.S. would be motivated to throw its weight behind such a treaty because it would give the Americans a clean and easy exit strategy from Afghanistan.
Afghanistan would not pose a threat to anyone in the region. Its force of "a few good fighting men" would do more good than hundreds of thousands of "men unwilling to fight."
Everybody wins, but the major beneficiary would be Afghans themselves. They deserve a peaceful life after decades of war and suffering. With the money they save by decimating the bloated ANDSF, Afghans could invest in their own infrastructure and economy, leading the way toward lasting peace.