Afghan President Hamid Karzai has just wrapped up his visit to Washington. On January 11 he held his first face-to-face talks with President Obama since last year's NATO summit in Chicago, shortly after the leaders had signed a long-term strategic partnership. The three days of discussions with far-reaching implications were mainly focused on security, economic and political transition processes and talks on bilateral security agreement between the both countries that the leaders failed to conclude this time. There were some uncertainties concerning peace negotiations with the Afghan Taliban and as how Karzai would transfer power to his duly elected successor in 2014. The schedule of US Armed Forces withdrawal and the number of troops to remain in Afghanistan after 2014, if any, was the key issue on the agenda. Obama and Karzai agreed to accelerate their timetable for putting the Afghanistan army in the lead combat role nationwide. It will take place this spring instead of summer. «Starting this spring our troops will have a different mission: training, advising and assisting Afghan forces», the US President said at a joint news conference with Karzai in the White House. Mr. Obama also said he was not yet ready to decide the pace of U.S. troop withdrawals between now and December 2014 – the target date set by NATO and the Afghan government for the international combat mission to end. Obama and Karzai also have yet to decide whether a residual U.S. force will remain after 2014 to prevent al-Qaida from re-establishing a substantial presence in Afghanistan and to continue training and advising Afghan forces. Once the Afghans take the lead across the country this spring, «most unilateral U.S. combat operations should end, with U.S. forces pulling back their patrols from Afghan villages», the joint statement says. The leaders added that this puts greater importance on providing the Afghans «appropriate equipment and enablers», although no mention of specific new agreements to equip the Afghan army or police was made. Obama added later that even in a backup role he could not rule out that U.S. troops could be drawn into combat. The two leaders also agreed that the Afghan government would be given full control of detention centers and detainees.
The ISAF coalition currently numbers 100,000 troops, 66 of them from the United States. A half of this force may be withdrawn by the end of this year. Under the US – Afghanistan Strategic Partnership Agreement signed on May 1, 2012, some US troops may remain to train Afghan forces and continue to fight al-Qaida cells. General John Allen, the commander of NATO forces and top US commander in Afghanistan, has recommended keeping between 6,000 and 15,000 troops in the country after 2014. The Defense Department has been asked to include into the planning the scenarios envisaging between 3,000 and 9,000 troops to remain.
Before the visit Washington had publicly announced the possibility that no US soldiers will remain in Afghanistan past 2014. «We wouldn’t rule out any option», US deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes said on January 8, referring to a complete withdrawal of all American troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014. Asked about consideration of a so-called zero-option once the NATO combat mission ends at the end of 2014, Rhodes said: «That would be an option that we would consider». The statement made just before the Karzai’s visit is the first high-level public acknowledgement that the US is considering a complete pullout. As one can see the comments by Mr. Rhodes contradict the initial recommendations by the top military commander in Afghanistan. So, there is a chance President Obama may opt to remove it all, as happened in Iraq in 2011.
US anti-war sentiments strong
Americans are tired of the war with too much lives and money has been spent after more than 11 years of war and nearly 2,000 dead. It's the longest war in U.S. history, exceeding Vietnam (8.4 years), the Revolutionary War (8.4 years), the Civil War (four years), World War II (3.7 years) and World War I (1.6 years). An October 2012 Pew poll found a great majority in favor of a quick withdrawal: 60% of Americans said they wanted US troops removed from Afghanistan as soon as possible, while only 35% support leaving US troops there «until the situation stabilizes.» Also interestingly, the Pew poll reported 25% of Republicans said that President Obama is removing troops too slowly. 45 percent of returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan are claiming disability benefits. A quarter of those veterans — 300,000 to 400,000, depending on the sources— say they suffer from some form of post-traumatic stress disorder.
In November 2012, the Senate voted in favor of a measure that calls upon the President to continue withdrawing US troops at a steady pace, to end all regular US combat missions in Afghanistan no later than December 31, 2014, and to «take all possible steps» to end such operations earlier. Still the talk of this «zero option» may actually be a gambit to squeeze concessions from Karzai.
Controversies on the agenda
The Karzai's visit followed a year of growing strains in U.S.-Afghan ties. In October the President of Afghanistan accused the United States of playing a double game in his country by fighting the war in Afghan villages instead of going after those in Pakistan who support insurgents. Karzai wants the US to provide helicopters, heavy weapons and other advanced military equipment for Afghanistan's army as well as warplanes for the Afghan Air Force. He strives to secure commitments from Washington to deliver military enablers in areas such as air support, medevac, intelligence and logistical assets and maintenance for several years to come until Afghan support forces have built up. Mr. Karzai insists humanitarian and reconstruction aid be channeled through Afghan government ministries rather than via western aid agencies. Kabul has accused the US of fostering corruption by giving funding directly to warlords.
Obama and Karzai failed to reach agreement on an equally sticky issue: whether any U.S. troops remaining after 2014 would be granted immunity from prosecution under Afghan law. Immunity is a U.S. demand that the Afghans have resisted. In Iraq M. Obama decided to pull out all US forces after failing in negotiations with the Iraqi government to secure immunity for any US troops who would remain behind.
Peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government officials are broached from time to time. Hopes have been further raised by a meeting in France between the Taliban and the Afghan High Peace Council last month, which US officials have described as «promising». Direct talks with the Karzai government have been ruled out by the Taliban, which wants to negotiate with the US, while the American officials say it should speak directly to the Afghan government.
There are divisions of views between the Afghan and US governments not mentioned in the visit’s agenda. For instance, the US recognizes the Durand line as a Pakistan – Afghanistan border, something that stokes vigorous protest and indignation in Kabul. The line drawn by British in the XIX century has never been recognized by Afghanistan whatever government was in power.
The Afghan situation
The list of complaints voiced by many Afghans includes: rampant corruption, poor governance with limited capacity, billions of dollars in Western reconstruction aid that often lined pockets instead of bringing about tangible results. Corruption, serious crime, land theft and other usurpation of resources, nepotism, a lack of rule of law and exclusionary patronage networks afflict governance. Afghans crave accountability and justice and resent the current mafia-like rule. Whether the 2014 presidential elections will change the things for better is a question mark. Everyone is hedging their bets in light of the transition uncertainties and the real possibility of a major security meltdown after 2014. Afghan army commanders are leaking intelligence and weapons to insurgents; Afghan families are sending one son to join the army, one to the Taliban and one to the local warlord's militia. Patronage networks pervade the Afghan forces, and a crucial question is whether they can avoid splintering along ethnic and patronage lines after 2014. Attrition rates are high and morale is low; the attacks on coalition forces have eroded trust and slowed the training. If security forces do fall apart, the chances of Taliban control of large portions of the country and a civil war are much greater.
The U.S. military can continue to carry out the president’s policy – which is to disrupt and defeat al-Qaeda – with smaller numbers of troops in Afghanistan. Special operations forces can continue to degrade the leadership of Afghanistan’s insurgent groups on the one hand while providing training and assistance to Afghan government forces on the other hand. The US may try to preserve some facilities in Afghanistan on the basis of bilateral accords going around the United Nations. The presence will be limited by personnel involved in training missions, not combat actions, what will make it possible to declare the operation over. Afghanistan is officially called a close ally beyond NATO – an important prerequisite for leaving presence behind.
The military presence will hardly strengthen the US clout in the region from purely military point of view; to the contrary, it will make the US dependent on other countries. The reason is logistics, a large order in case such mission is set. Any bases, no matter large and well protected, any country may have abroad, are useless and doomed to be lost in case the transportation routes to provide the military with materials is a problem. In the case of US, it is a problem due to absence of access to sea and friendly nations in the vicinity.
Afghanistan is the country that has no access to sea, providing logistical support depends on the good will of other adjacent nations. None of the countries around Afghanistan are close US allies, including the hostile Iran. Any exacerbation of tension will require enormous political and financial efforts and a lot of time. The Afghan Armed Forces is nor the most capable loyal ally too. Leaving a continent behind, the US will make it an easy target for local radicals. The force will neither exert any influence in Afghanistan itself, nor on the regional scale.
The withdrawal from Afghanistan will practically put an end to US influence in Central Asia. Even Turley, Iran or Pakistan will have more clout due to geographical, confessional, cultural and linguistic factors. The very same way the US influence in Iraq is down with troops gone.
Actually leaving military facilities behind would engender more problems and headaches for Washington, without boosting any capabilities whatsoever. There is no silver lining here. The Afghan government is already seeking other sponsors, getting close with China, for instance, a policy it has been pursuing for a number of years. Afghanistan has something to offer, like natural resources – a source of becoming rich and prosperous in future that was discovered not so long ago. Unlike the US, China needs no sea routes to import it. The distance is an advantage. And unlike the US again, it can put up with the backwardness of transportation infrastructure and relatively high security risks, it enjoys enough manpower resources to extract the minerals and guard the development sites. One more advantage – unlike the United States, China has big state companies that can conduct activities when economic benefit is not the only reason. Afghanistan is a route to the territory of Iran, a Beijing friendly state, and the whole Middle East. China may upstart lucrative economic projects, like construction of pipelines to its territory making it less vulnerable in case tankers are endangered if combat actions spread to sea. The relations between Pakistan and China are on the rise, including military cooperation against the background of relationship between Pakistan and the USA getting to low ebb. It’s the territory of Pakistan the transportation links between China and Afghanistan will pass through if constructed.
The 2012 Strategic Partnership Agreement does envisage the presence of US troops on Afghan soil till 2024, mainly for training purposes, but says nothing about permanent bases, though the document declares Afghanistan to be the major US ally beyond NATO.
The agreements reached during the visit and previously are easy to construe as the admission of US failure in Afghanistan. It’s an attempt to avoid the return to 2001, the situation created back then by the US itself to remember the recent history. Special operations forces (SOF), unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), satellites and night vision gadgets may offer some chance of limited success while waging a counter guerilla warfare. Leaving some, even token, presence behind is a way to render psychological support, though no drones or SOF are able to deter a large-scale offensive by Taliban forces making the US military flee the country, a mission much easier to accomplish in case no evacuation of large permanent bases is required. No way may the military balance in Afghanistan be changed till 2014, once no tangible success has been achieved during the last 12 years. It all makes the idea of leaving military presence in Afghanistan after 2014 an ill-founded and unreasonable decision, a move doomed to failure.
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The views on Afghanistan’s future may differ, of course. But they all agree the likelihood of plunging into the quagmire of political and military turmoil is great. With US troops gone, the chances of Taliban control of large portions of the country and a civil war are the most probable scenario. There was a chance to make things different, but the US got bogged down in pointless war in Iraq that led to overstretching and attrition. It breached the international law by conducting an operation not sanctioned by UN and made the chances missed in Afghanistan, the war started according to the Security Council’s decision. The US government made a big mistake back then. More fighting will not consolidate the modest gains made by this war. The US global interests suffer when it is mired in unwinnable wars in distant regions. Korea, Vietnam, Iraq – these are the battles the US failed to win and was better off leaving.
It’s clear the US has lost the war. It’s just testifies to the fact that the era of US dominance in the world is over, its rearguard is just shooting back. The time comes for a new kid in town on the world map. But that’s a different story with a scenario impossible to predict…