This is a decisive year for Afghanistan. The withdrawal of all foreign troops, the pursuit of peace talks with the Taliban, and the presidential election due for April 5 combine to open a new chapter in the country’s political history.
International forces are slated to leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014. If the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) is signed, a residual U.S. force of between 5,000 and 10,000 will remain. This force would serve only in a training and advisory role for the fledgling Afghan forces and may operate on its own only to hunt down the remnants of al-Qaida operatives and leadership.
So far, however, Afghan President Hamid Karzai has refused to sign the BSA until the principal concerns of the Afghan government are resolved and certain preconditions are met. U.S. President Barack Obama recently warned Karzai that the U.S. military will withdraw all troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014, the latest attempt to cajole the Afghan leader into signing the BSA.
“Because [President Karzai] has demonstrated that it is unlikely that he will sign the BSA, the United States is moving forward with additional contingency planning,” the White House said in a statement that followed the recent call between the two leaders. “Specifically, President Obama has asked the Pentagon to ensure that it has adequate plans in place to accomplish an orderly withdrawal by the end of the year should the United States not keep any troops in Afghanistan after 2014.”
With these changing circumstances, Afghanistan is once again at a historical crossroads. Once again, the Afghans themselves, their neighbors, most notably in Pakistan and Iran, and the international community face a question: Can they save the country from further bloodshed?
For now, the Taliban continues its attacks. One recent incident at a military checkpoint at Ghaziabad, in the mountainous Kunar region close to Pakistan, saw 21 Afghan soldiers killed and a number of others apparently taken hostage. Meanwhile the country’s economy continues to struggle, remaining in the grip of warlords and other corrupt elements who may have reasons of their own to oppose any peace deal with the Taliban.
Any initiative to move beyond this grim situation must be led by the Afghan people themselves. The role of the international community, led by the United States, must be helping Afghans determine their own future, and blocking the kind of interference from Afghanistan’s neighbors that marked the strife in the 1990s. This is the best hope for achieving a stable and robustly democratic Afghanistan, which is surely in the interests of the region and the world at large.
Afghans are peace-loving people who have been sadly exploited by powers both local and distant. Invasions by the world’s most powerful states has sown internal mistrust, and have left the nation poor, without infrastructure, riven with disunity, and rampant with discrimination. Afghans are well aware of this and are ready to resolve their internal differences peacefully.
The next question is will the U.S. and the international community continue to support Afghanistan in terms of building its economy, its infrastructure and its state institutions? If Afghanistan’s government institutions remain weak, then a return to Taliban control seems inevitable. In that case, having seen off another superpower, the Taliban will be stronger than ever, a prospect that must alarm not only Afghanistan but also neighbors Pakistan and Iran.
It is worth remembering, though, that Afghan society has changed. The Taliban does not have the kind of widespread support they enjoyed before the war. State institutions, while weak, are at least active. If it does receive international support, Afghanistan can overcome the pressure applied by Taliban violence.
Afghans are no different from people anywhere else: They wish to get on with their lives in peace. They have the chance to do that after the U.S. withdrawal, but regional stakeholders and the international community must assist. The time for fighting is over; the Taliban must be brought to the table for talks.