South Asia Research and Analysis Studies

Afghanistan: diminishing options
Khalid Iqbal

For Americans, the Afghan war is entering its final phase. President Barack Obama is ensuring that it ends during his tenure. But he is also aware that none of the stated objectives of this war have been visibly achieved.

Nevertheless, he would go down in history as one of the most pragmatic presidents for pulling America out of this futile and stalemated war without a stigma of formal defeat in the classical sense.

Pressures and motivations for pulling out the foreign troops from Afghanistan are numerous: budgetary constraints, war weariness, alternative stand-off capabilities, military basing facilities in the region, faith in US intelligence networks, etc.

Obama is conscious that his legacy as President will inevitably be shaped by the outcome of the Afghan imbroglio. The denial of defeat, however, does not mean that the US would not go through the agony of being reduced to the state of a helpless superpower. As time is running out, the essence of all diplomatic efforts is the display of grace - indeed, emotional labour to cover the indecent haste towards zero troops’ option.

In Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai is visibly anxious that the 2014 electoral process to select his successor brings up a person that he could trust. For this, he is striving to make fundamental changes in the election laws that could make many potential candidates ineligible to contest the elections. He also wants to do away with the ‘Elections Complaint Commission’ and transfer its functions to the Supreme Court, whose judges without exception are his nominees.

At the same time, the political roadmap that emerged from Paris explicitly states: to start with, the Taliban will be included in Afghanistan’s power structure and given non-elective positions at different levels; and eventually, they would be integrated in the overall political process.

Before leaving Kabul for the Washington Summit, Karzai showcased the release of prisoners whose custody had been transferred to Afghanistan in accordance with the US-Afghan agreement. Perhaps, the most important demand from President Karzai, during his recent meeting with President Obama, was to find a way to overrule the provision in the defence authorisation bill passed by Congress that prohibits the transfer of prisoners held in Guantanamo to another country. Karzai knows that the proposed swap of five Taliban prisoners currently held in Guantanamo, for an American soldier held hostage by the Taliban, is a starting point for any serious effort towards political reconciliation in Afghanistan.

The post-2014 American force level in Afghanistan is a sticky issue. Pentagon has given fresh options that would keep roughly 3,000, 6,000 or 9,000 American troops in Afghanistan after 2014. The US and Afghan negotiators are working on a long-term deal on force level. If these talks stall, the US could pull out all of its troops from Afghanistan as it did in 2011 when similar talks with Iraq faltered over a demand for legal immunity for residual troops. “If there is no authority granted by the sovereign state, then there’s not room for a follow-on US military mission,” said Douglas Lute, Obama’s Special Coordinator on Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Retired General Stanley McChrystal, a former US commander of the Afghan mission, in a recent interview with Reuters, said that there was a value to having an overt military presence in Afghanistan after 2014 - even if it was not large. “The art, I would say, would be having the smallest number so that you give the impression that you are always there to help, but you’re never there either as an unwelcome presence or an occupier - or any of the negatives that people might draw,“ he maintained.

A senior Nato official said that a force of less than 6,000 would have “very limited” capacity. According to a recent Pentagon report, only one of the Afghan National Army’s 23 brigades is capable of operating without support from the US and other Nato troops. However, Anthony H. Cordesman, a national security analyst at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, said that it is realistic for the US to consider a “zero option” because of possible opposition to a post-2014 troop presence from the Taliban leaders and others. The Taliban have significantly influenced the debate over US troop levels. Numerous statements issued by them have unequivocally warned that they would continue the war if any “residual” troops remained.

A few weeks prior to the Chantilly meeting, Kabul had disclosed a ‘peace process roadmap’ consisting of five steps that sought to outline a vision in which, by 2015, the Taliban would have given up armed opposition. The final steps include securing a peaceful end to the conflict during the first half of 2014 and then move forward to sustain the long-term stability of Afghanistan and the region.

The first paragraph of “Afghanistan’s Vision by 2015”, reads: “Taliban, Hizb-e-Islami and other armed groups will have given up armed opposition, transformed from military entities into political groups, and are actively participating in the country’s political and constitutional processes……..Afghanistan’s political system remains inclusive, democratic and equitable, where all political actors co-exist and promote their political goals and aspirations peacefully……..Nato/Isaf forces will have departed from Afghanistan, leaving the Afghan National Security Force (ANSF) as the only legitimate armed forces.” The very first step calls for a “focus on securing the collaboration of Pakistan.” In particular, Pakistan will “facilitate direct contact between the Government of Afghanistan and identified leaders of armed opposition groups.”

Though there was no joint statement after the Chantilly meeting, the announcements of the Paris talks brought forth two things: that the US and Nato have given up the objective of defeating the Taliban and an admission that the ANSF will be incapable of ensuring security in the country post-2014. The roadmap explicitly states that the Taliban will be included not only in the state power structure, but will also be given non-elective positions at different levels. This is a clear reference to governorships in the provinces.

As Obama’s clock is ticking, there are many loose ends that need to be tied if durable peace is to be ensured in Afghanistan. Where other immediate and distant neighbours may have concerns about the direction that Afghanistan could take after 2104, Pakistan has stakes.

Already a home to 1.2 million Afghan refugees, Pakistan cannot afford to stay indifferent to the ongoing developments in Afghanistan. Pakistan should take the lead in bridging the perceptional gap between the government in Kabul and various political resistance groups of Afghanistan. Things are moving pretty fast and thus Pakistan has to keep pace with them to remain a relevant player.