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The changing endgame

March 20, 2012

AS parliament begins its debate on the resetting of US-Pakistan relations and presumably insists on laying out transparently the parameters for the relationship it should bear in mind the recent dramatic changes in the Afghan situation which are an important though not dominant element in the US-Pakistan relationship.

I say important rather than dominant because the elimination of the terrorist threat posed by Al Qaeda and its affiliates remains the principal American objective in the region and that is seen to be emanating from Pakistan’s soil rather than Afghanistan’s.

In my view, even if a reconciliation process brings a modicum of peace to Afghanistan the American interest in our region and in our own struggle against terrorism and extremism will continue for the decade or more that would be needed to change the mindset created over the last 34 years.

Unfortunately, recent developments in Afghanistan make it unlikely that peace of any sort will be achieved in Afghanistan. One can break up these developments into two parts, the first being those that have exacerbated almost to a breaking point the tensions between the Karzai and Obama administrations, between the Afghan National Security Forces and Nato forces and perhaps most importantly between the Afghan populace and the Nato forces particularly in the insurgency-ridden south and east of the country.

These include the video showing American soldiers urinating on Taliban corpses, the discovery by Afghan cleaners that Americans were incinerating copies of the Holy Quran, the subsequent riots in which some 30 Afghans were killed and 200 injured and the killing of two American officials in a high-security area by a security-cleared Afghan.

These also include the withdrawal of all Nato personnel from Afghan offices thus halting progress on developmental and training activities, the shooting rampage by an American sergeant Robert Bales in an Afghan village killing 16 people including women and children and the abortive effort by an Afghan interpreter employed by the British to use an explosives-filled hijacked truck to ram either the plane carrying US defence secretary or the VIP military delegation waiting to receive him at a military airport in Helmand.

In terms of the impact on Nato plans for completing the withdrawal of all foreign forces by 2014 and then retaining some 20,000 Americans at Afghan-controlled bases perhaps the most important of these developments are the attacks on Nato forces by the very Afghans that they are training and mentoring or employing. These ‘green on blue’ episodes are not new. Many in the past have been talked about as resulting from personal differences rather than ideology or from poor vetting which permitted Taliban infiltrators to join the Afghan security forces. It was said that inculcating greater cultural sensitivity and more rigorous vetting would reduce if not eliminate this problem. After the two most recent incidents, however, this optimism is questionable.

The training mission already understaffed will find it difficult to find the extra people needed or to retain those already deployed from other Nato countries. Similar problems will arise for the Special Operation Forces that are supposed to train the Afghan local police, the creation of which is theoretically a key element in retaining government control of areas wrested from Taliban control.

The second set of developments relate to US-Afghan relations at the government level.

First, on March 11 President Karzai said in an interview to Radio Free Europe that he was almost ready to sign a general Strategic Partnership Agreement with the Americans (this followed up on an agreement reached earlier on the transfer to Afghan control within six months of Bagram prison and the 3,000 Taliban or suspected Taliban held there). However, he made it clear that while this agreement could be concluded before the Nato meeting in Chicago in May this would not cover an agreement on a continued US military presence after 2014. For this, he said, another year of negotiations would be needed.

Second, after the shooting rampage by Bales, Karzai demanded that American forces withdraw to their bases and leave the protection of villages to Afghan forces and that the handover of security responsibilities to Afghan forces be completed by 2013 rather than 2014. This despite the fact that of the Afghanistan army’s 158 battalions only one is deemed capable of operating independently and even that is dependent on American air support. It seemed that Karzai had backed away from this demand after a conversation with President Obama but the fact that the demand was made reflects his frustration and his perception of the public mood.

Third, the Taliban have announced the breaking off of negotiations with the Americans in Qatar. This is probably because the Americans made the release of the five Taliban demanded by the negotiators conditional on an unequivocal renunciation of Taliban ties with the Al Qaeda or any international terrorist movement.On the American end in this election year opinion remains divided but it is my view that there will a growing clamour for ‘bringing our boys home’ and for pursuing American goals by other means. Parliament must therefore bear in mind the strong possibility that Nato will be licking its wounds, leave Afghanistan earlier than expected and the Americans will abandon plans to maintain a residual presence.

Reconciliation will remain stalled and chaos will ensue as the Afghan economy shrinks, as the exodus of capital estimated at $8bn a year increases, as the Northern Alliance girds its loins to prevent a Taliban takeover and as the flow of Afghan refugees, a trickle now, becomes a flood bringing another two to five million refugees into our beleaguered country.

The writer is a former foreign secretary.