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Growing gulf in Afghanistan

March 07, 2012


THE rapidly deteriorating situation in Afghanistan has thrown America’s exit plan into peril, casting doubts on whether an orderly withdrawal from the war-torn country is still possible.

The killing of six American soldiers by their Afghan counterparts over the past week raises questions about the viability of the US strategy that depends on the Afghan security forces for winding down this 10-year war. More coalition soldiers are now being killed by Afghan soldiers than in attacks by the Taliban.

Despite reassurances by the Obama administration that there will be no change in its war strategy, there is growing scepticism about the US achieving even a minimum objective that would allow it an honourable exit from the Afghan quagmire.

It may not be ‘the Saigon moment’ for the American forces in Afghanistan yet, but many analysts believe the situation is fast spiralling out of control. Although the recent violence was triggered by an incident of the desecration of the Holy Quran by American soldiers, it was simmering sentiment against the occupation forces that the protests gave vent to. Some 40 people, including six American soldiers, have been killed in the worst wave of violence since the US occupation of Afghanistan in December 2001.

The tension had been building up for quite some time, particularly after the surfacing of a video that showed four American soldiers urinating on the bodies of Taliban fighters. But the desecration incident let loose a furious tide that swept through even the areas in northern Afghanistan which are considered relatively peaceful. The street protests have now subsided, but the continuing attacks on coalition troops indicate intensifying hostility among Afghan soldiers towards their foreign mentors. A major plank of Nato’s planned 2014 withdrawal plan was to train and transfer security responsibility to the Afghan army, but the recent spate of killings has put that objective into peril. America and its coalition partners have pulled out hundreds of military advisors associated with various Afghan ministries and coalition troops have been advised to keep their distance from their Afghan counterparts because of the fear of more attacks. That decision is going to seriously affect the military campaign against the Taliban insurgents.

There has been a steep rise in the trend of Afghan soldiers turning their guns on their foreign partners. Even before this latest episode, the attacks on foreign troops had become more frequent. Earlier this year an Afghan soldier killed four French soldiers, prompting France to accelerate the withdrawal of its troops. Another rogue Afghan soldier shot and killed an American marine in Helmand province in February.

Some 76 coalition troops have been killed and 114 others wounded in attacks involving Afghan security personnel since 2007; 75 per cent of these have occurred in the past two years. The Taliban have claimed the responsibility for most of the attacks, but there has not been any independent verification of the claim. Some analysts believe that some of the attackers may have been Taliban infiltrators, but there have also been individual acts, particularly in the case of the recent killings.

The rising number of coalition troops’ deaths had prompted US officials to order a tougher screening procedure for members of the Afghan army. Yet given the degree of distrust, there is little hope of the gulf being bridged. American officials concede that despite years of training that has cost billions of dollars, the reliability of Afghan soldiers remains suspect.

This situation is bound to affect the coalition plan to build a well-trained Afghan security force which could work jointly with the foreign forces in fighting the Taliban insurgency and be ready in the future to take complete responsibility for security. But the increasingly perilous situation on the ground provides little hope of achieving that objective. The expectation that a weak administration in Kabul will be able to transform Afghanistan into a stable state by 2014 and take over border and internal security responsibility is unrealistic at best. The growing animosity among Afghan soldiers has restricted options for the United States and its allies as the 2014 deadline comes closer.

While the US and its coalition partner are fast losing ground, the Taliban are taking full advantage of the situation, fuelling the unrest and inciting Afghan soldiers to turn their guns against “foreign infidels rather than on their own people”. In many areas, former Mujahideen commanders who had allied themselves with the US under public pressure joined the protests.

There is now serious doubt that America’s negotiations with the Taliban are going anywhere. The decision earlier this year by the Taliban to open an office in Qatar had raised hopes of the talks getting off the ground. The office provides legitimacy to the insurgents which was essential for taking the reconciliation process forward. Some American officials believed the development could be a game-changer.

There were also reports that the Obama administration may even agree to release five Taliban prisoners from Guantanamo Bay and shift them to Qatar. The move could have paved the way for more substantive negotiations on the future of Afghanistan, but it is not clear whether the Taliban will seriously engage in the negotiations in the current situation.

The fact that this is an election year has also compounded President Obama’s Afghanistan dilemma. Any concession in the negotiations with the Taliban would expose him to attacks from the Republican presidential candidates. He was even criticised for apologising to the Afghan people over the desecration incident. In this situation, the release of Taliban prisoners at Guantanamo Bay seems difficult. Yet more important at this point is how the US administration deals with the current challenge emanating from the growing gulf between the coalition forces and their Afghan counterparts.

The writer is a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre, Washington DC and the author of The Scorpion’s Tail: The Relentless Rise of Islamic Militants in Pakistan And How It Threatens America.