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Before the Afghan drawdown

April 17, 2012


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.