Afghanistan: A Dirty-End?

Spearhead Analysis – 30.05.2014

By Zoon Ahmad Khan
Research Analysts, Spearhead Research – Pakistan

President Barack ObamaObama’s choice of 2016 raises serious questions about the expected aftermath.

For the Obama administration withdrawal from Afghanistan comes with heavy strings attached. Both internal and external factors have played a significant role in derailing and re-defining the official stance and in doing so have blurred the claims of righteousness and duty that initially justified this intervention. Ironically also the political opposition within the United States is not siding with the external players, but stands in stark contrast to the humanitarian stance assumed by the regional stakeholders for Afghanistan. From the Republicans, Israel and Saudi Arabia, to the humanitarian civil society, academics, and Afghans themselves, the withdrawal has been labeled from a cowardice to one long overdue step.

A week ago, in lieu of all the heated debates between Obama and Karzai, amidst Afghanistan’s first truly democratic election, the US President made a surprise visit to Afghanistan. The timing is crucial as Obama faces enormous pressure back home. Wars for humanity, after tragic aftermath of the Iraq war, and the increasingly deteriorating domestic security situations in other countries where intervention has been justified have made the US public more skeptical than ever. For Libya, Tunisia, Egypt and Iraq the revolutions under the promise of democracy crumbled to rubble only to be picked by dictators. Moreover increased availability of arms has left the public unsafe once the guns were pointed inwards for personal gain and glory by ‘revolutionary’ groups.

Secondly, the availability of different perspectives with the proliferation for non-US based news channels, and increased availability through social media have played a substantial role in deconstructing previously held notions. The social impact of drones for instance, the treatment of Palestinians by an Apartheid-esque Israeli government, and the coercive policies of CIA even towards their own citizens are being talked about more openly. However at the same time Obama faces opposite pressure from the Republicans who have condemned his announcement of complete withdrawal by 2016 a cowardly move.

“The achievement of this goal, and the withdrawal of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, should be determined by conditions on the ground, not by the president’s concern for his legacy,” was the immediate criticism generated towards the President. The Republicans, the ones to start the war in the name of national security have heavily criticized Obama’s announcement as destructive to the larger fight the US had aimed to fight in Afghanistan. Can the US leave Afghanistan irresponsibly just so that President Obama can win his party another term, and be remembered as the man who brought the troops home? Remembering the aftermaths of US withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989, Iraq by 2011, perhaps one can share their skepticism.

Obama has announced that by the end of 2014 the total number of US troops remaining will be slashed down to 9,800, further halved by the end of 2015. From 2015 onwards the troops will be quartered only in Bagram Airfield and Kabul, supplemented by NATO troops. While for the Republicans sitting in the Congress the stated withdrawal plan has been labeled hasty, back in Afghanistan perceptions lie on another end of the spectrum. Karzai, the outgoing President who has faced thick and thin next to the United States all throughout the war said a flat no to any presence post 2014. But unfortunately for Karzai, while local leaders and political forces support his claim, in front of the US putting his foot down was insignificant and ineffective.

For the Afghan President further American presence would be undermining the democratization process, influencing the fragile political structure that needs further harnessing, and most importantly perhaps undermining Afghan sovereignty. Despite his weak bargaining position, however, the outgoing President seems to have achieved a minimum tolerable solution from the US. After almost a year of bargaining, and unilateral statements from the US, Karzai seems to either have succumbed, or genuinely achieved his goal in the latest security arrangement announced. Perhaps in his own way Karzai too wants to leave a legacy of restoring peace to his people. With 2014 being his personal preference, a promise of withdrawal, and presence only for the purpose of ‘supporting’ the local security forces seems an opportunity with seizing.

While Afghans want the freedom to make their own decisions, the fact that Taliban and extremist elements within the country will continue fighting any US presence, be it in the form of a formal alliance with the Afghan government is worrisome. A peace deal is the only way out. Karzai has made an open call to the vigilantes to make the most of an opportunity opened to them till the end of 2016. Are these elements, barely weakened even after billions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of troops having been deployed over thirteen years, looking for this ‘rare and lucky’ opportunity? Despite US presence up until now the extremist elements continue to strike hard in key cities. With fewer soldiers left behind shouldn’t this scenario and restlessness worsen?

But another way, the Republican claim, can also fall prey to critics of wars and their failure to achieve any larger, positive agendas.  Can US presence really ensure any peace when the people of Afghanistan and their elected governments are rejecting it? For Obama the decisions made and how those decisions are implemented will leave a mark on the region and in history. With India and China investing heavily in a fertile Afghanistan, Pakistan already having borne the brunt for a previous hasty withdrawal, peace in Afghanistan will have economic and security repercussions globally. It is this realization perhaps that has also forced the US into a position of negotiation with Iran, another key player in the withdrawal process.

Back home, wars and interventions have gained a reputation worse than ever before. As the Middle East’s revolutionary fervor is dampened by right-wing extremists, perhaps the shades of gray in global security players and partnerships have become more apparent. With the Soviet’s fall another demon, the religious extremist, right-wing, coercive fundamentalist was born. Even two decades later, with the fall of dictators in the Middle East, similar extremists were able to occupy the vacuums created. While Obama does not condemn the war itself in his latest statement, it is no secret that there is no clean departure. And perhaps it is for this reason that final withdrawal must wait till the next election.

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