Over the past few weeks the news from Afghanistan has been grim. Videos showing American soldiers urinating on the corpses of Taliban insurgents; Afghan cleaners discovering at Bagram airbase that American soldiers were burning copies of the Holy Quran; subsequent demonstrations and even riots in Afghan cities in which 30 Afghans died and 200 were injured; a security cleared Afghan official killing two high ranking American military officials in the most secure part of the Afghan Interior Ministry; all NATO officials then withdrawing from Afghan offices, bringing much of the training and development work to a standstill; a lone American soldier, Staff Sergeant Robert Bales entrusted with the task of training the Afghan Local Police in a Kandahar village, engages in that very village in a shooting rampage killing 16 people, 9 of them women and children. This series of events, each important in itself, but having catastrophic consequences in the totality of their impact have exacerbated almost to breaking point the tension between the Karzai and Obama administration, between the Afghan national Security Forces and NATO forces and perhaps most importantly between the Afghan populace and the NATO forces particularly in the insurgency ridden South and East of the country.
Perhaps in terms of the plans for a continuing American presence after the withdrawal of NATO forces the principal problem that will arise is the increase in “green on blue” incidents-the killing of NATO personnel by the Afghans whom they are supposed to be training and mentoring or by those Afghans who are employed by the NATO forces. The most recent incident- an attempted ramming by an Afghan interpreter, employed by the British and using a hijacked truck filled with explosives, of the plane carrying Secretary Panetta or the high level officials assembled to greet Panetta reinforced the doubts and misgivings in Washington prompting such questions as “why do our Afghan allies hate us enough to kill us when we are there to help them?” and “Why are we supporting a government that can't keep its agents from killing ours?” It can be said and is being said that most of these incidents have taken place for personal rather than ideological reasons. It can be said that infiltration of Taliban agents into the ANSF will be checked with new vetting measures but the fact is that the Americans and most NATO forces now see every Afghan as a possible assassin or suicide bomber.
In these circumstances even if other problems are resolved will the Americans want to be at “joint bases” as guests of their Afghan hosts who will have operational control and presumably responsibility for security? Will the Afghans be prepared to grant the immunity from local law that the Americans traditionally insist upon for their forces after the shooting rampage? (It was on this score that no American troops stayed on in Iraq.) Already there have been protests about his departure from the country. If it is established as is likely that the man was temporarily or permanently deranged it is unlikely that he will receive in an American military court the sort of punishment that the Afghans would expect. The probable solution the Americans will adopt is to give “blood money” to the families of the victims-something that is part of Islamic law and Afghan tradition-and then sentence Bales to a term in a mental health institute. In the meanwhile an afghan investigation team member has said that there was a whole group of Americans not just one individual who carried out the attack. True or not this is bound to colour the popular reaction and make even more difficult the restoration of even that minimum level of trust that could make it possible for the Americans to conduct a training mission.
On the Afghan side in the immediate aftermath of the carnage President Karzai demanded that ‘international forces should leave the villages and move to their bases” and that “both sides should work on a plan to complete the security transition process by 2013 instead of 2014.” His adviser Ashraf Ghani maintained that this “is not moving the goal posts” and that “everybody will be happy if it can be pushed up assuming conditions are right.” Subsequently after a telephone conversation with President Obama it appeared that Karzai had backed away from this demand and that the original timetable would be adhered to. But Karzai’s initial demand was indicative of the mood that prevails in Kabul.
This should be read in conjunction with Karzai’s interview of 11th March, reported by Radio Free Europe, in which he said that while he could sign a General Strategic partnership Agreement with the USA soon he did not expect to sign before the Chicago meeting in May any agreement on the stationing of American troops in Afghanistan after 2014. This he said would take another year to negotiate. Given the current mood it is unlikely that even the General Strategic Partnership Agreement will now be signed before the May meeting.
On the American side, there is a growing demand for an accelerated withdrawal from Afghanistan. Opinion is still divided but as the election campaign’ tempo grows one can easily visualise a situation where “bring our Boys home” becomes a salient slogan of the Presidential and Congress candidates.
What happens then? The Afghans at the Bonn conference circulated a paper suggesting that they would need international assistance of $ 10 billion a year for the next decade to be able to maintain their armed forces and to keep their country going. This sort of funding will obviously not be available but currently the Afghan government’s revenues cover less than 1/4th of the government’s expenditure even when defence expenditure is excluded. A deputy governor of the Afghan Central Bank has estimated that some 8 billion dollars are taken out of Afghanistan annually. They have now taken measures to limit to $20,000 the amount of foreign currency that an individual can take out of Afghanistan but this is not going to stop the exodus of capital. In other words Afghanistan will have few resources of its own to generate employment promoting economic activities.
According to the estimated prepared by NATO only one of Afghanistan’s 158 battalions is capable of operating independently. The newly created Afghan Local Police units will probably become unemployed because the government will not be able to pay them. Who then is going to tackle the military threat that the insurgents can mount. It would appear that if the Americans withdraw, as they are likely to do in accordance with the timetable that Karzai proposed Afghanistan would be back to the days of the civil war of the 90’s.
It is perhaps with this in mind that the Russian foreign minister in an interview with an Afghan TV channel TOLO demanded that the NATO forces operating under a UN mandate should not withdraw from Afghanistan until they had brought peace and stability to Afghanistan as required under the UN mandate.
Russia’s demand will not be met. At best the withdrawal will take place by 2014 and there will be probably be no peace by then unless unexpectedly fast progress is made in “reconciling” with the Taliban who have only just announced the breaking off of talks with the Americans.
America and NATO may leave the region but it is Afghanistan’s people and equally Afghanistan’s neighbours that will have to suffer the consequences. They must work together to persuade the Afghan factions to find a solution. The Afghans are capable of doing so but only if they can be sure that no neighbour will continue the policy of interfering in Afghanistan’s internal affairs even if Afghan factions seek or beg for such intervention.