(MENAFN - Khaleej Times) IS AMERICA now only looking for a safe withdrawal from Afghanistan after concluding that there is no vital objective to pursue there other than retain a counter-terrorism capability to thwart any terrorist network's regeneration?
Or does Washington want to work for a political solution to help avert the risk of Afghanistan's post 2014 descent into chaos and its fallout on regional stability? Does the US have the patience to forge a negotiated peace? Or will that be left for Afghans to undertake?
Answers to these questions are pivotal to Afghanistan's future and to regional peace. They will likely emerge from dynamics on the ground in Afghanistan as well as be determined by how formidable the obstacles are to develop a peace process. The outcome of the American presidential election - just days away - will also clarify the path the next administration will take.
For now several strands of thinking are discernible in Washington's official circles and beyond. The two that are noteworthy are to secure a safe exit above and beyond other goals; and/or seek a negotiated settlement to end the fighting before 2014. These are not of course mutually exclusive.
The presidential debates indicated how firm both candidates are about the 2014 deadline to pull out US combat troops from Afghanistan. This acknowledges the strong anti-war public sentiment in America. When the Republican aspirant Mitt Romney declared, "we do not want another Iraq, we don't want another Afghanistan", this was aimed to distance him from Bush era policies and signal his commitment to ending the Afghan war.
Vice-President Biden's pronouncement during the October 11 debate was more instructive. " We are leaving in 2014, period. There are no ifs, ands or buts". (our) primary objective is almost completed" - a reference to defeating Al Qaeda.
In this backdrop, a New York Times editorial of October 13 gave expression to another emerging view. It urged a schedule of withdrawal on logistical grounds alone. Titled 'Time to Pack up', the editorial called for the departure of US forces on a schedule "dictated only by the security of the troops". Arguing that even President Obama's scaled down goals were elusive, America now needed "to exit as soon" as possible. Significantly the editorial did not mention the need for negotiations to politically end the war.
This is not the official view. It might, however, foreshadow Washington's default position if the going gets tough, challenges posed by 'insider' attacks mount and public support for the Afghan project continues to crumble.
But there are also strong indications that the Obama administration is interested in exploring the possibility of installing an Afghan peace process ahead of the 2014 political and military transitions. The October visit to Islamabad and Kabul by US officials led by Ambassador Marc Grossman was aimed to promote that objective.
American officials acknowledge the reality that if Afghanistan's political transition - Presidential elections in spring 2014 - does not proceed in a credible manner this could jeopardise an orderly troop withdrawal expected to be completed by December 2014. If Kabul's political edifice is shaken this could plunge Afghanistan into turmoil ahead of the pullout. For that reason alone reduction of violence is necessary. This rests on being able to encourage the Taleban to join peace talks.
At present the military and political transitions are perilously out of sync and efforts to align them with progress in peace talks seems a daunting challenge. But it remains the only solid foundation on which these transitions and a 'safe' withdrawal can reliably rest.
Yet preparations for the political transition are tellingly inadequate. President Hamid Karzai's erratic behaviour and ambivalence towards talks with the Taleban make him an uncertain partner in what will inherently be a difficult process.
Then there is another fundamental question. What will Washington offer the Taleban to encourage them to join the peace process when their leaders know that most foreign troops will leave in two years' time?
Uncertainty surrounds Afghanistan's future. But one thing is clear. Without some sort of political accommodation and a credible peace process it might not be possible to prevent a chaotic outcome. This could imperil the peaceful exit of US forces.
This would be an even bigger disaster for Pakistan. Islamabad, therefore, has the most compelling rationale to help to promote a peace process. Can Pakistan and the US jointly pursue this objective despite the burden of their recent fraught history? The answer to that question must, in the first instance, wait for the American election to be over.