February 26, 2012

US pullout from Afghanistan

Serious implications for regional security
by Anita Inder Singh


THE announcement by Leon Panetta, US Defence Secretary, that the US could end combat operations in Afghanistan in 2013 — instead of 2014, as declared earlier — and concentrate on providing training for Afghan forces was the first time a senior Obama administration official had made such a statement. It took even America’s NATO allies by surprise, although some of them — especially France and Britain — were already thinking of cutting back on their own military operations.

Panetta claimed that the quicker handoff was possible because of improved security and performance by Afghan forces. But that is at odds with the view of senior Afghan military officials that such a hasty move could spell disaster. It also goes against a warning by the American intelligence agencies in January that the Afghan conflict is mired in stalemate partly because of Pakistan’s extremist exports across the Durand Line, partly because many difficulties could jeopardise the Obama administration’s plans to withdraw most U.S. troops and hand over responsibility for the war to the Afghan government by 2014.

Indeed, the Karzai government was already fearful that Afghan troops might not be ready to assume more responsibility for maintaining security. Panetta’s caveat that US and NATO troops that stay in Afghanistan would be "combat ready" has not eased Karzai’s concern.

The main problem with President Obama’s Afghan strategy has always been his withdrawal statements in 2009 and 2011, and his 2014 deadline for NATO troop pullout This deadline has been unconnected to the West’s aims in Afghanistan. "2013" is even more unconnected and is inspired largely by Obama’s calculation that bringing the boys back home sooner rather than later will help him win next November’s presidential election.

Even before Panetta’s surprise statement, Washington had topped up Obama’s withdrawal statements of 2009 and 2011 by stating that NATO would remove $30 billion worth of military equipment from Afghanistan; defence cuts (which will also affect Europe) and reduced aid to Afghanistan. Earlier this year, he talked of drawing down from Afghanistan and moving eastwards, strengthening America’s position in the Asia-Pacific. (That last statement of intent will not impress India or any other Asian country, especially if the US is perceived as retreating from Afghanistan; it will instead raise the question how America’s move eastwards will be financed if military expenditure is reduced).

The exit strategy for Afghanistan included building of a strong Afghan government and army, able to defend their country. But Obama’s hurry to exit in 2013 raises the prospect of Afghanistan being up for grabs in a free-for-all that could include the Afghan army, the Taliban, and warlords belonging to minorities.

Obama’s personal and domestic political considerations have come to the fore. The trouble is that they have little to do with Afghanistan’s stability. This is why American’s attempts to get reconciliation on the rails in December failed, with the Taliban declaring that they would continue fighting. That failure was all the more conspicuous because neither the Karzai government nor any Afghan group, apart from the Taliban, took part in the peace talks.

Dr Abdullah Abdullah, an ethnic Tajik, who unsuccessfully challenged Karzai in the 2009 presidential elections and could stand for political office once again, is a major Taliban opponent. And even if Karzai tries his own hand at reconciliation with the Taliban, he will face resistance both from a parliament that is demanding an expansion of its oversight powers and a revived political opposition, the National Front for Afghanistan (NFA).

The NFA is composed of leaders from three major non-Pashtun communities — the Tajiks, the Uzbeks and the Hazaras — all of whom opposed the Taliban and Pakistan during the 1990s and remain hostile to both. At the very least, the NFA — and parliamentarians from other groups — is opposed to parleys with the Taliban, and will call for a meaningful role in the peace process. That will go against the grain of Washington’s thinking that it is enough to talk to the Taliban to usher in peace.
Even if Karzai — or the US — manage to include more Afghan parties in negotiations they will have to reconcile the Pashtun Taliban with the non-Pashtun NFA. Whether the Taliban will give up their insistence on the implementation of strict Sharia law is anyone’s guess. Women and minorities were among the most persecuted groups under the Taliban regime and will challenge any attempts to throw them back to second-class status. In such a situation the Afghan security forces could split along ethnic lines.

The mere prospect of such a catastrophe should push Washington, Kabul and Islamabad to do everything to reach a broad-based political settlement. Peace talks must include all Afghan political groups and be Afghan-led. Even if the US manages to strike a deal with the Taliban — which seems to be difficult at the moment — it will not be able to impose its wishes on the Afghans who dislike it. Only the Afghans can forge an enduring consensus about their future government and political system.
Last but not the least, America’s failure to coax or cajole Pakistan into making the Taliban more amenable to peace, despite massive amounts of aid over the last decade, stands out. Washington has brought no military pressure to bear on Pakistan to tackle the Afghan Taliban: US-Pakistan relations only nosedived after the killing of Osama bin Laden on Pakistani turf in May 2011 — and the US remains dependent on Pakistan’s army. Pakistan could certainly get a seat at the negotiating table — but could turn out to be obstructive if it keeps banging on its anti-India drum (General Kayani wants the Indian Embassy in Kabul to close down, but neither Karzai nor the US would accept this).

India has always wanted NATO to stay the course — that is, defeat the Taliban. It must start thinking what it will do if NATO scuttles from Afghanistan and the Taliban come back to power. One option is to continue developing closer contacts with Russia, Iran and Central Asian countries, all of which have a vested interest in a stable Afghanistan; in addition, Iran is close to Afghanistan’s Shia minorities. Iran can also provide India access to Afghanistan and other Central Asian nations through the port of Chabahar.

The Obama administration’s statements about withdrawal from Afghanistan have been ill-judged and ill-timed, and have serious implications for security in South Asia.
The writer is Visiting Professor, Centre for Peace and Conflict Resolution, New Delhi.

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