By Arvind Gupta and Smruti S. Pattanaik
The much anticipated announcement on the drawdown of US troops from Afghanistan came on June 22, 2011. President Obama declared that the US will withdraw 33,000 troops from Afghanistan by September 2012. Striking a confident posture, he assured his nation that the drawdown of troops was being undertaken from a “position of strength”. In his assessment “the tide of war is receding …..in Afghanistan, the light of a secure peace can be seen in the distance.”
The decision to withdraw troops from Afghanistan will be a game changer. But, will it lead to more or less stability in Afghanistan? The indications are that the Taliban may have been emboldened by Obama’s announcement. The Taliban have stepped up their attacks. The spectacular attack on the highly fortified Intercontinental hotel in Kabul on June 29 is a bad omen. Further, the desperate lack of governance in Afghanistan coupled with lax security, rampant corruption, high unemployment, weak institutions and rising civilian casualties in Western air attacks have encouraged the Taliban to project a success story.
Another prominent feature of the emerging situation is that the US, Pakistan and Afghanistan, the three key players in this war, have divergent views and interests on counterinsurgency operations and reconciliation with the Taliban. The three are likely to pursue different agendas as the US troop drawdown begins. They are individually engaged in maximising their respective gains in the post-withdrawal phase.
In order to hasten the withdrawal, the US is engaged in secret talks with the Taliban. The US hope lies in putting together a political arrangement inclusive of the Taliban as it withdraws from Afghanistan in the next three years. Softening its position, the US has ensured that the Taliban are removed from the list of entities under UN sanctions. Only al Qaeda operatives remain on that list now. This is to induce the Taliban to break its links with the al Qaeda, renounce violence and recognize the Afghan constitution to participate in the talks. The US endeavours to talk directly with the Taliban has upset the Pakistanis. There is a possibility that, like in the past, Pakistan will try to scuttle US talks with the Taliban. In this context, it is worth recalling the words of Prime Minister Gilani who said, “Nothing will happen without us, because we are part of the solution”. Pakistan regards Afghanistan as its rear-guard.
Pakistan’s Afghan policy is at variance with that of the US. The US raid that killed Osama Bin Laden, who was hiding in Abbottabad, has seriously strained US-Pakistan relations. The Pakistan army has been publicly criticized for having failed to defend the country’s sovereignty. After the unilateral Abbottabad operation, Pakistan has forced the US to withdraw 120 American operatives functioning in different capacities in Pakistan including those who were providing training for the Frontier Corps. Given its aid dependency, Pakistan will continue its dubious cooperation with the US in dealing with the Taliban elements at least in the short run. But, Pakistan sees in the US withdrawal a strategic opportunity to reestablish its influence in Afghanistan by rebuilding relations with the militants from whom it had distanced itself under US pressure. This is the prime reason for Pakistan’s reluctance to expand the theatre of war to include North Waziristan where the Haqqani group is based.
The withdrawal of the international community from Afghanistan will confront President Karzai with many problems. Afghanistan is trying to open its own negotiations – without much success so far – with the Taliban in order to create multiple stakeholders in the future system of governance.
President Karzai, who at one time accused Pakistan of fomenting terrorism in Afghanistan, now describes Pakistan as Afghanistan’s conjoined twin. Afghanistan has also formed a Joint Commission with Pakistan in January 2011 for holding direct negotiations with the Taliban. The Joint Commission includes the representatives of the army and security agencies on both sides. The Afghan High Peace Council, which is headed by former President Rabbani, continues to do much the same thing but operates separately. The simultaneous existence of two commissions to engage with the Taliban is a recipe for confusion.
President Karzai’s relations with the Western countries have deteriorated sharply. The two sides have openly sparred over Karzai’s controversial re-election and on the sensitive issue of corruption. Karzai has also been playing to the domestic gallery and has even gone to the extent of hinting that the Western forces are ‘occupier’ forces. The US is unlikely to provide a blank cheque to Karzai unless he takes visible action against corruption which has fed into the insurgency.
Despite strains in US-Afghan relations, the two sides are reportedly discussing a “strategic partnership”. But, given growing public anger in Afghanistan against the mounting civilian casualties, which stood at 2,777 in 2010, Karzai, who is likely to seek another term in office, is in a quandary. On the one hand he desperately needs the US security and economic assistance, but on the other he cannot be seen to be too close to the US. To the domestic audiences he claims, “we have tied up US hands and feet with our conditions” in the proposed first draft of the Strategic agreement. At the same time he knows that he cannot impose conditions on the US as without the latter’s support the Afghan government is simply not sustainable. President Karzai is negotiating hard to ensure continued military and economic assistance under the strategic partnership agreement with the US. Similarly, he is trying to engage with Iran, Russia and China bilaterally.
Nation building in Afghanistan is no longer a declared aim for the US. The sole US objective is “not to tolerate a safe haven for those who aim to kill US citizens”. How will the US ensure this as it begins to withdraw from Afghanistan? Pakistan has not proved to be a reliable partner. Terrorists continue to find a safe haven in Pakistan. Osama Bin Laden’s killing has not changed this situation. The US has to realize that Taliban safe havens in Pakistan need to be dismantled. There are reports that the US may keep military bases in Afghanistan while withdrawing the bulk of its troops. It is anybody’s guess whether keeping military bases in Afghanistan will diminish the threat to the US from al Qaeda/Taliban havens in Pakistan. Will it change Pakistan’s behaviour? Unlikely! On the contrary, Iran Russia and China will be concerned at the US military bases in Afghanistan. The US troop withdrawal appears to be motivated by domestic US compulsions. The US is simply too tired to continue with the expensive war in Afghanistan. There is a danger that a hurriedly executed troop withdrawal may satisfy Obama’s domestic compulsions but will leave the region in a deeper mess.
Originally published by Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (www.idsa.in) at http://www.idsa.in/idsacomments/WillAfghanistanstabilizeaftertheUStroopdrawdown_agupta_300611