SHORT of declaring victory the Obama administration has announced it is ready to ‘turn the page’ on America’s longest war. The endgame had already started with the drawdown of US troops but it will take another two and a half years for America to bring the Afghan war chapter to a complete end. Under a new timetable announced by President Obama, the last American troops will not leave Afghanistan before end 2016.

Although the security and combat responsibility will be transferred completely to the Kabul administration by the end of this year, the presence of a sizeable residual force would keep the US involved in the Afghan conflict beyond 2014. With the Special Forces continuing to operate in Afghanistan, presumably to disrupt the Al Qaeda threat and train Afghan security forces, it effectively means there will be no end to the US war this year. These, in fact, were the very pursuits the US forces have been engaged in throughout the 13-year-long war.

It remains to be seen whether the limited US presence succeeds in guaranteeing the stability that the more than 130,000 troops at one point could not achieve. The US exit strategy seems as confused as it was during the course of the war. With no political reconciliation with the insurgents in place, long-term stability in Afghanistan remains questionable despite the historical political transition this year.

After considerable dithering, the Obama administration last week released five senior Taliban prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay in exchange for an American soldier. The trade-off question had been on the negotiating table for more than two years. The issue was directly linked with the start of a formal negotiation process between the Afghan Taliban and the US on the future of Afghanistan.

Apart from other factors, the US refusal to release the Taliban prisoners was a major reason for the Doha process not taking off. All five detainees were to be the part of the Taliban negotiating team. The deal may now come too late for the revival of a dead negotiation process.

But some American officials are optimistic that the release of the American soldier will lead to the resumption of engagement between the US and the Taliban. “Maybe this will be a new opening that can produce an agreement,” US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel told the NBC network after the exchange of prisoners.

For the Afghan insurgents, the deal has come as a great victory. In a rare statement, Mullah Omar, the supreme leader of the Taliban movement, extended his “heartfelt congratulations to the entire Afghan Muslim nation and families of the prisoners for this big victory”. There was no indication in the statement about any prospects of a resumption of direct talks with the US authorities after the deal.

The five detainees identified as Mohammad Fazl, Mullah Norullah Noori, Mohammed Nabi, Khairullah Khairkhwa and Abdul Haq Wasiq were very important members of the ousted Taliban regime in Afghanistan and reportedly remain influential in the insurgency movement despite having been in detention for so long. They have been transferred to Qatar where they will stay under travel restrictions for one year.

Even if the prisoner exchange does not lead to resumption of the dormant Doha process, it certainly has improved the prospects for some kind of engagement between the US and the Taliban. Surely the secret negotiations that ultimately led to the deal was carried out at a very senior level from both sides. Even President Hamid Karzai was kept in the dark about the impending agreement.

That shows the widening distrust between the Obama administration and the outgoing Afghan leader. Their relations hit a low after Karzai refused to sign the bilateral security agreement and blocked the Doha process. Still, one cannot blame Mr Karzai for his outrage over the US deal with the insurgents behind his back. The Obama administration could afford to ignore the lame duck Afghan president. But any such unilateral and secret deal with the Taliban by the Americans would not be acceptable even to the new Afghan leadership.

What is most intriguing is the timing of the prisoner swap deal. Why now? After holding back on the decision for two years, the Obama administration seems to have moved on the issue putting aside all caution. The secret deal came at a critical stage of the political transition in Afghanistan with the final round of presidential election less than two weeks away, further fuelling uncertainty about the US endgame.

It is now a race between Abdullah Abdullah, a former foreign minister and a consummate politician, and Ashraf Ghani, a former finance minister and a senior World Bank executive. The contest is expected to be close, though Abdullah Abdullah seems to have an edge over his rival.

A former Northern Alliance leader with a mixed ethnic background — half Pakhtun, half Tajik — Abdullah has strengthened his position by winning the support of Zalmai Rassoul and Gul Agha Sherzai, the two losing candidates in the first round and ethnic Pakhtuns. Mr Ghani has been able to woo Ahmed Zia Massoud to his side, but that may not shift the balance much.

Whatever the outcome, the change of leadership is not likely to stabilise the situation in Afghanistan. One thing is, however, certain. The new Afghan president will sign the bilateral security agreement, a prerequisite for America’s continued stay in

Afghanistan post 2014. But the challenges of the Afghan endgame are formidable.

The writer is an author and journalist.

Twitter: @hidhussain

Published in Dawn, June 4th, 2014

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