No Light at the End of the Tunnel
Afghanistan has become President Barack Obama’s toughest challenge and greatest threat. As the country grows increasingly unstable, will he be able to pull out U.S troops responsibly and still safeguard America’s reputation?
President Obama had all along maintained that for the US, Iraq was the wrong war but Afghanistan was the right one and framed his foreign and military policies accordingly. He agreed to the military surge in Afghanistan that was meant to gain operational superiority over the Taliban so as to bring them to the negotiating table. In the last four years however, President Obama has learnt that the war in Afghanistan (also the longest in US history), is an unwinnable proposition and that he will have to scale down his expectations about its outcome. In fact, during the US Presidential debates it was clear that there existed a consensus between the Democratic and Republican parties to withdraw US forces from Afghanistan by 2014.
In his new term, President Obama’s main foreign policy agenda will be to leave Afghanistan with his credibility intact and with the legacy of having secured, for the medium term, some of the goals the US fought the war for in the first instance, notably that Afghanistan is not a safe haven for Al Qaeda and its successors or franchise. Moreover, the US will hope that post 2014, the Afghan government would ensure that the so-called democratic system and framework that has been created with their assistance is holding and the country does not plunge into a civil war.
In 2014, Afghanistan will be holding elections but if last elections are any guide, there are serious doubts if free and fair elections could be held by the present regime. Rigging and electoral malpractices could lead to lack of credibility and a severe setback to the democratic process.
The Taliban always contented that “you have the watches we have the time”; the greatest challenge will be to prevent the Taliban from forcing Afghanistan to revert to the state it was before the US invasion. If they do, it would represent an utter political defeat of the US enterprise. A major escalating problem for the US will be the need to demonstrate that the so-called progress made in transferring security responsibilities to the Afghans is based on real progress and not on wishful thinking of
politically ambitious people like General Petraeus (whose comments that the Afghan National Army and Afghan Police are actually ready to take over, were unfounded).
The US plan is to hand over security responsibilities to the Afghans in a phased manner commencing by the middle of 2013 and finalizing it by end 2014. According to the New York Times about ten thousand US and few thousand allied forces will remain in Afghanistan after 2014 giving a strong signal that US and NATO are not going to abandon Afghanistan. As a part of the Strategic Partnership Agreement, the US after 2014 will maintain its bases and keep Special Forces in Afghanistan.
In addition to an advisory role, the US is likely to maintain a base in Bagram and another in Kandahar, leaving Special Forces and units of air force to support ANA and Afghan security forces.
In addition to an advisory role, the US is likely to maintain a base in Bagram and another in Kandahar, leaving Special Forces and units of air force to support ANA and Afghan security forces. The US will also rely heavily on predator drones and precision guided munitions for targeting Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups.
After Washington decides the strength of troops to be stationed in Afghanistan post 2014, it will also have to decide on the draw down plan. Despite US support, it is doubtful whether Afghan forces will be able to retain control in Helmand, parts of Kandahar and many of the eastern provinces. However, the US will make every effort that Kabul does not fall to the Taliban. In all likelihood with US support, Herat, Mazar Sharif and most of Western and Northern parts may be able to resist the advance of the Taliban.
The greater challenge will be to retain the integrity of the Afghan National Army after 2014. There are fears that ethnic and political differences may permeate the ranks of the army that has yet to gel as a strong national institution.
Another directly related challenge will be to reconcile Americans to the idea that little or none of the social progress that in their minds justified this very long war (example on the status of women) is likely to survive if at all after their departure. Moreover, the drug trade is likely to grow and the US will be have to face warlords who are behind it. These and other related issues are challenges that no US government is well equipped to handle effectively and could easily fail at doing so.
Finally, as of now there is no game plan on what to do about Pakistan, the key neighboring country that will play a major and perhaps determining role in what happens next door as the US leaves. Washington is unlikely to develop a Pakistan policy that is effective, because it hasn’t thus far. The US success in Afghanistan would also depend to what extent Pakistan is willing and capable of confronting terrorists and eliminating safe havens within its border. A similar expectation is there from the Pakistani side that sanctuaries in Afghanistan’s eastern provinces where Pakistani Tali- ban are taking refuge, will be cleared by the US and Afghan forces.
However, in its quest for an orderly withdrawal from Afghanistan, the US administration will continue to engage Pakistan and seek its cooperation. It wants Pakistan to release the Taliban leaders and use its influence to bring them to the negotiating table. The aim is to persuade at least the lower and middle ranking Taliban to abandon violence, integrate in the society and become part of the political order. If the political process were inclusive then it would prevent the recycling of violence and facilitate the transfer of power to the Afghans.
It is possible that some of the lower and mid-ranking Taliban are now war weary and willing to participate in the negotiating process. The question however remains: can the second tier leaders like Mullah Barader, even if they are released by Pakistan, deliver on their own or are dependent on Mullah Omar’s dictates to agree to any form of negotiations?
Then there is the issue of the release of the Guantanamo Bay prisoners. If the US were to release at least some of them it would meet a long-standing demand of the Taliban and will be a major confidence building measure. Moreover, if both sides could agree to a temporary cease-fire it would facilitate talks and demonstrate that the Taliban and the US genuinely want to find a political settlement. As of now, this seems unlikely. Talat Masood is a retired Lieutenant General of the Pakistan Army Corps of Engineers. General Masood holds a Masters in Defense and Strategic Studies and has also served as a visiting fellow at the Stimson Center in Washington, D.C. He was a consultant for the leading U.S. defense manufacturer United Defense Limited Partnership (UDLP) for five years.