The Afghan President Ashraf Ghani is on his first trip to Washington as head of state. The visit is seen as an opportunity for both sides to put past the legacy of troubled US-Afghan relations and start afresh. The US continues to be a key determinant of Afghanistan’s future. The Afghan president is accompanied by his chief executive, Abdullah Abdullah, and around 65 Afghan officials. During the four-day trip to the US, Ghani is scheduled to address a joint session of the US Congress and visit Camp David and New York.
Ghani would probably have liked two events to set the tone of his visit. First is the Afghan army’s first-ever solo offensive against the Taliban in Helmand province, seeking a decisive victory ahead of the spring fighting season. The offensive suitably demonstrating for the first time since 2002, the ability of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) to go to battle without foreign combat assistance. The second, which eludes Ghani, is the success in the renewed push to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table and initiate a peace and reconciliation process.
The US Posture
Series of developments at various levels have brought the US mission in Afghanistan to a critical juncture even as it draws down. Newly appointed US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter announced on February 21that Washington is considering a number of changes to its mission in Afghanistan, which includes the drawdown schedule and the counter-terrorism mission.
The Barack Obama administration appears to be nearing a decision to keep more troops in Afghanistan next year than it has declared. Also related is the fact that maintaining the troop levels closer to 10,000 would also allow the US-led coalition to operate two large bases in Kandahar and Jalalabad. The Jalalabad base is the hub for intelligence gathering activity and drone operations. On the other hand troop contribution by North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies for the training mission in Afghanistan have not been easy to come by.
The events in Iraq of last year have also had an effect. These have not only caused the US to take a hard look at the ANSF capabilities but also changed to an extent, the public opinion back home on extended troop deployment in Afghanistan. Pakistani cooperation on countering terror and coordinated operations with the ANSF along the international border has also made US oversight of the developments crucial. Ghani is pushing to keep as many international troops in Afghanistan as possible for as long as possible and accordingly is requesting more flexibility on the scheduling of the drawdown. The US is reportedly “actively considering” his request.
On the flip side, the US use of air power in Afghanistan in the first two months of 2015 has been its lowest in five years. None of the 503 air support sorties by US air assets this year have been flown to support ANSF in battle. A move, when seen along with its decision not to launch ground operations by coalition troops against the Taliban, is perhaps to provide both Afghanistan and Pakistan a more suitable environment to progress peace talks with the Taliban.
Taliban ranks appear to be deeply divided over whether to engage in talks and have persisted with attacks on the government in Kabul. In eastern and southern Afghanistan, where the Taliban have traditionally been stronger, it was the US airstrikes and other combat support that had prevented the Taliban from making significant inroads during last year’s fighting season. Yet the Taliban has gained influence in parts of northern Afghanistan in areas that were recently seen to be firmly under government control. Also the observers feel the fighting this winter has been among the most intense since the war began. This increased intensity of operations maybe efforts to secure a stronger negotiating position, or worse, part of the Taliban plan to fight out the government in Kabul.
A breakthrough in peace talks with the Taliban would have allowed the US to stay course with its drawdown plan to reduce the number of troops in Afghanistan from 10,000 to about 5,600 by the end of this year.
While the Taliban continues to be the primary challenge to peace in Afghanistan, it has now been assessed that the remaining Al Qaeda presence in Af-Pak is probably more robust than estimated. Besides Al Qaeda, concerns are also mounting over reports and evidence of groups affiliated with the Islamic State (IS) emerging in Afghanistan. The IS besides extending its writ, analysts fear, may be eyeing the estimated $3 billion a year from Afghanistan’s poppy crop to augment its war chest. It is felt that the ANSF in measuring up to these challenges in 2015 may find itself wanting in capacity to ensure the country’s security.
In addition to the US drawdown plans, Taliban peace talks and the IS threat, Ghani during his visit is also expected to focus on the financial support to Afghanistan, which has been secured until 2017, but needs to be secured for the next five years. The growing role of China in the peace process may be up for discussion. Ghani also needs US backing, to pressure the Pakistani government to deliver more on bringing peace to Afghanistan. The risk of insufficient action by stakeholders is clear and has the potential to reverse the progress made so far.
The US president on his part may bring up the issue of implementation of the US-backed plan for the unity government in Kabul. Critics feel that instead of decentralizing the president’s powers as he had vowed, Ghani has been quietly consolidating his power and creating an even more dominant presidency. Ghani is reportedly bringing billions of dollars in procurement deals under his direct purview, denying ministries the opportunity to contract their own goods and services, citing corruption fears.
This is also the time when analysts back home have been criticising the Narendra Modi government for a passive Afghanistan policy and the Afghan government of ignoring Indian interests. Even as Ghani visited Saudi Arabia earlier this month, his CEO Abdullah was in India to shore up support for a “regional consensus” on reconciliation with the Taliban.
India would look at Ghani’s US visit for some more tangible indications of the future US strategy in Af-Pak and even Central Asia. It would also provide a measure of how the Afghanistan-Pakistan counter-terrorism coordination is progressing and how far US would go in supporting it. Though India is playing along, the current US approach in Af-Pak invokes little confidence within India.