February 15, 2012

US engagement in Afghanistan must go beyond 2014

Author:  Hiranmay Karlekar


While American troops will finally pull out of Afghanistan by 2014, it will not mean the end of US's involvement in that country. The US must maintain its hard-gained leverage

There has been much speculation about the United States' role in Afghanistan after 2014 when it is scheduled to withdraw most of its troops from that country. Releasing a report on Central Asia and the Transition in Afghanistan by the majority staff of the United States Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, the Committe's chairman, Senator John Kerry, said on December 19, 2011, that the US's relationships and engagement in Afghanistan will continue after the military transition in 2014.

The report itself categorically states, "The US role in Afghanistan is changing, but Washington should repeatedly stress that its engagement is not ending. Afghanistan's neighbours fear the 2014 security transition and withdrawal of coalition forces could mean abandonment. The United States must keep working to change the narrative by making it clear that we will protect our long-term interests in the region. The top priority is regional stability, and that is why 2014 will mark the beginning of a new phase of US engagement in the region. The US military will continue to work with the Afghan National Security Forces to prevent the return of terrorist safe havens..."

Of the three recommendations made in the report, which deals with America's ties with Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, the first calls for striking a balance between the security and political priorities in the region. It further states that while increasing security cooperation with the countries of Central Asia to support efforts in Afghanistan, the United States must also lay the foundation for a long-term strategy that "sustains these gains and protects US interests in the region." It calls for the United States promoting political and economic reforms and, "given the tight fiscal climate", it calls for the use of "the existing Afghanistan resources on cross-border projects that promote regional stability." Significantly, it also calls for increased assistance to Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan "given their fragility and importance for broader regional stability."

The second recommendation is for translating the New Silk Road vision into a working strategy for the broader region beyond Afghanistan. This, the report says, will require identifying needs, available resources, the United States' comparative advantages, and the economic reforms regional Governments must undertake to support increased trade and investment. It states that the NSR's vision of connecting Central to South Asia through Afghanistan will not be a panacea for the latter's economic woes, but has the potential for promoting private sector investment if projects are prioritised and steps taken to create an enabling environment. The United States, it says, can play a vital role by supporting political and economic reforms and leveraging its resources.

The third recommendation calls for linking the Central Asia Counter-Narcotics Initiative with bilateral initiatives that offer traction in the context of constraints on regional cooperation. CACI provides an important vision for reform and information sharing to tackle narcotics trafficking in the region. Mentioning hurdles like corruption and lack of political will, it calls for United States to consider piloting a task force in countries where there is the greatest chance for success and an enhancement of cross-border cooperation between Afghan and Central Asian law-enforcement and military officials and the establishment of joint training facilities.

All this, however, leaves one with the question of the United States' military role in Afghanistan post-2014. A report by Alissa J Rubin in The New York Times of December 20, 2011, mentions members of the Obama Administration and other American officials as saying that 2014 was not a hard deadline for an American military withdrawal. It also quotes the American ambassador in Kabul, Mr Ryan C Crocker, as saying that the United States was open to keeping its forces in Afghanistan if the Afghan Government asked for them. According to General John R Allen, head of the American and NATO forces in Afghanistan, more American trainers and mentors will arrive in Afghanistan from 2012, and, even more in 2013. Besides, according to reports, American special operations forces will be present for intelligence-driven operations. US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta's talk of financial crisis compelling a downsizing of the Afghan National Security Forces proposed strength of around 3,50,000, raises the question whether America's plans for post-2014 role will not run aground. A Pandora's Box may open up in the region if it does.

Last modified on Wednesday, 15 February 2012 21:58
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