By Air Commodore (R) Khalid Iqbal

Afghan warFor Americans, the Afghanistan war is entering its final phase. President Obama is ensuring that this war ends by his watch; he is also aware that none of the stated objectives of this war have visibly been achieved. Nevertheless, he would go down in the history as one of the most pragmatic presidents for pulling America out of this futile stalemated war without a stigma of formal defeat in the classical sense. Pressures and motivations for pulling-out all the troops from Afghanistan are numerous: budgetary constraints, war weariness, alternative stand-off capabilities, military basing facilities in the region; faith in the US intelligence networks etc.

President Obama is conscious that his legacy as president will inevitably be shaped by the outcome of Afghan imbroglio. Denial of defeat does not mean that Americans as a nations would not go through the agony of being reduced to the state of a helpless super power. As the time is running out, the essence of all diplomatic effort is display of grace—indeed emotional labour, to cover the indecent haste towards zero troops option.

In Afghanistan, President Karzai is visibly anxious that the 2014 electoral process to select his successor brings forth a person that he could trust. For this, he is striving for 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 all judges are his nominees. At the same time, the political road map that emerged from Paris explicitly states that: 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 Washington summit, Karzai showcased release of prisoners whose custody had been transferred to Afghanistan in accordance with the US-Afghan agreement. Perhaps the most important demand from 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 by the Taliban is a starting point for any serious effort towards political reconciliation in Afghanistan.

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 U.S. military mission,” said Douglas Lute, Obama’s special coordinator on Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Retired General Stanley Mc Chrystal, a former US commander of the Afghan mission said in a recent interview with Reuters that there was a value to having an overt military presence in Afghanistan after 2014 – even if it wasn’t 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.”  A senior NATO official said 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 United States and other NATO troops.  However, Anthony 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 Taliban leaders and others. The Taliban have significantly influenced the debate over United States troop levels. Numerous statements by the Taliban have equivocally 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, which sought to outline a vision in which, by 2015, the Taliban, would have given up armed opposition. The final steps include securing 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 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 Afghan National Security Force 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 provinces.

As Obama’s clock is ticking, there are many loose ends which need to be tied if durable peace is to be ensured in Afghanistan. Where other immediate and distant neighbours may have concerns about the trajectory 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 regarding Afghanistan. Pakistan should take the lead in bridging the perceptional gaps between Kabul government and various political resistance groups of Afghanistan. Things are moving at a pretty fast speed, Pakistan has to keep the pace to remain a relevant player.

Writer is Consultant, Policy & Strategic Response, IPRI.