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Before the Afghan drawdown

Published Apr 17, 2012 12:05am


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IN a series of brazen attacks in Afghanistan on Sunday, the Afghan Taliban attacked key Nato bases, embassies, parliament and government buildings in Kabul and three eastern provinces, stoking fears of stalemate in any peace negotiations.

Even as Nato forces termed the attacks ineffectual, emphasising the preparedness of Afghan army units, seven heavily guarded sites in Kabul were targeted. Apparently planned over months, these attacks expose Afghan intelligence failures and the loopholes in Nato’s transition policy.

“These operations have been a regular feature of Taliban strategy over recent years seeking to show that they can strike at the centre of Afghan and international power as well as elsewhere in the country in their own heartlands,” said terrorism expert, Jason Burke.

In 2014, the US will have fought a 13-year-war in Afghanistan. Though there is fear that once the foreign forces exit, the country will fall into civil war with Al Qaeda elements in Pakistan unleashing extremists to destabilise the region, the latter’s role in achieving regional stability cannot be understated.

The approaching end of this war comes at a time when a troubled relationship between the US and Afghanistan and continued anti-American sentiment in Pakistan reflects little common strategic interest and more the short-term desire for the US to extricate itself from this conflict.

The recent Kabul attack, aimed at humiliating the government and its western allies, is not a one-off, and could undermine the peace process by giving the Taliban more bargaining power. Any negotiation is a contest of force and this is a demonstration of the Taliban, Burke adds. “This war is a long-running trial of stamina as much as anything. With the US and Nato allies clearly on the way out the Taliban do have a number of internal issues to address but are generally happy to wait until they leave.”

The major challenge is the lack of a clear agenda for a two-year transition period. Internal political divisions and external pressures have weakened the government and made it susceptible to a power vacuum to be filled by war profiteers of all kinds waiting for the international community to leave with or without a stable settlement.

The assumption that Afghanistan will remain stable after 2014 is incorrect: President Karzai might stay in power perpetuating political conflict; the Taliban will threaten Kabul; Pakistan will face increased militant activity.

The West cannot economically afford to fight in Afghanistan anymore where leaving a self-sustaining government and an army to take over responsibilities of security and governance is the only option for it. The current peace dialogue comes with the recognition that the Taliban could overrun troop surge gains over 2009-10; and that Pakistan has refused to clamp down on Afghan Taliban sanctuaries.

The Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies reported the US had spent $25bn from 2001 to 2010 training and equipping the Afghan army and police forces. It spent another $14bn in 2011. A 2010 International Crisis Group study stated the army could disintegrate after the US withdrawal. And given high attrition rates and low retention, an Afghan army capable of fighting the Taliban will cost billions of dollars a year.

Writer and Kandahar resident Alex Strick van Linschoten explains only one kandak or basic unit is able to operate ‘independently’ of international assistance within the Afghan National Army and there’s a long way to go in terms of training and supporting the logistical backend of the Afghan security services. The current strategy also supports militia (warlords) forces, allowing the US to withdraw troops from various parts of the country, at least for a few years, but in the long-term these forces are a ‘ticking time bomb of insecurity’ themselves.

Pakistan’s intelligence apparatus wants its fair share of strategic interference or it might become a deal-breaker; so if the Haqqanis are unavailable on the negotiating table, cross-border attacks will increase. Burke’s assessment is that this is probably because any access to them is mediated at the very least — if not controlled — by Pakistani intelligence services. It is the latter rather than the Quetta Shura which has a greater influence over the Haqqanis.

That those safe havens need to be destroyed if stability is to be brought to Afghanistan is another concern for the US when wanting to negotiate with the Haqqanis using the Pakistani intelligence’s ‘traditional’ links. Suggesting that Turkey might be “an example of what success might look like in such a volatile region,” regional expert Ahmed Rashid writes in Pakistan on the Brink: “Pakistan must act as a normal state, not a paranoid, intelligence service-driven entity whose operational norms are to use extremists and diplomatic blackmail.”

Karzai’s lack of leadership and his reconciliation efforts have been criticised by ethnic minorities, civil society and women who claim he is shoring up support among a conservative Pakhtun constituency. His government has received $784m for the Afghanistan Peace and Reintegration Programme, for convincing low-level insurgent fighters to denounce violence. So far, a little more than 3,000 fighters, the majority of them non-Pakhtuns from the north, have signed up.

In a bid to shore up confidence, the US signed a deal with Karzai’s government that authorises night raids only after the sanction of an Afghan review board. This agreement removes one of the obstacles in what is termed the Strategic Partnership Document, outlining the basis for cooperation for the years after Nato’s 2014 drawdown.

Without a regional strategy, these fractured relationships and political disagreements will precipitate mistrust. The US has not engaged Afghanistan’s neighbours — Iran, Pakistan, China, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Their historic relationships are decisive having worked in the past with local warlords and ethnic groups, pumping in money through proxies as Richard Holbrooke had noted in 2009.

There has been no formal engagement with Iran or Pakistan as partners on the Afghan endgame. If the US leaves responsibly, guaranteeing security, the end result could be satisfactory, even at the cost of the hundreds of thousands of lives that have been lost and the Taliban regaining their foothold in the southern and eastern provinces — but without claiming associations with Al Qaeda and without providing safe haven for the latter.

The writer is a senior assistant editor at the Herald.


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The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (6) Closed

P N Eswaran Apr 17, 2012 01:52pm
Afghanistan is more complex than Iraq from which the US could extricate itself. In Afghanistan it is the same regime which the US ousted will come back to power. Given the irresponsible nature of US intervention, a civil war after the US and Its allies leave is inevitable. The US will then play the same game with the Northern Alliance which Osama played with Taliban to end the then civil war. But one thing unfortunately seems certain: That normalcy in Afghanistan is a distant prospect.
ahmed41 Apr 17, 2012 09:44am
One feels sorry for the Afhans and the Pak-Afghan area !!! Not guns or bombs, but education, enlightenment, economic progress is the urgent need !!!
zubair Apr 17, 2012 01:19pm
The American exit strategy is heavily based on ANA (afghan national army) and ANP (afghan national police). However the the recent reports on the performance of ANA and ANP are a clear evidence of the fact that ANA and ANP are uptill now a complete failure. ANP has been found guilty in criminal acts such as rape, torture, bribe, land grabbing, kidnappings and ethnically dominated by one of the afghan ethnic groups.whereas, ANA is ethnically dominated, ill equipped and not fully trained etc. The stability in Afghanistan will come from inside Afghanistan and not from it's neighboures. yes the neighbours have a crucial role to play in the afghan led afghan peace process. If America wants a safe and peaceful exit, it should start working on nation building in Afghanistan their are no signs of a proper judicial institution, their are no political institutions. According to the Afghan constitution written by western friends 2014 is the last year in office for Mr karzai now political institution will help find one candidate whom Afghan people want as their leader, thus a law of sucession will be defined. Then Americans must ensure Pakistan their security concers will not be sacrificed and the events of soviet-Afghanistan will not be repeated. If America takes steps in these directions their are chances of an safe and peaceful exit leaving a stable, prospective and democratic Afghanistan. However the strategy opted by the Americans currently will lead Afghanistan to a civil war
observer Apr 17, 2012 06:36pm
I wonder if, "The recent Kabul attack, aimed at humiliating the government and its western allies,", then what was the attack on Bannu aimed at. And come to think of it, in Kabul 36 of the attackers were eliminated and all Bannu attackers went home in good health after a successful mission. I am not too sure if we should worry more about Afghanistan than some others.
Rao Apr 18, 2012 03:09am
A very pertinent and thought provoking observation, indeed!
BRR Apr 18, 2012 05:00am
History is likely to repeat itself - US exit followed by Pakistani meddling in Afghan civil war. Neither the Afghans nor the Pakistanis have learnt anything in the last 20 years since the end of the last war. All the intrigue, militancy, spies and lunatic fringe used for political gains will bury the region in strife.