The Way Out of Afghanistan

Spearhead Analysis – 13.02.2013

The Way Out of AfghanistanThe end game in Afghanistan is now the exit strategy. The violence weary people of Afghanistan want the foreign armies to leave. The NATO/ISAF forces want to go. Afghanistan’s neighbors want them to leave. All the bets, therefore, are on the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) – raised, trained and being sustained at enormous cost – but everyone has serious doubts about their capacity to operate on their own if the environment is totally hostile. According to some analysts the effectiveness of the ANSF is not more than 5% – roughly one plus brigade out of the total 23 brigades currently in the ANSF and the desertion rate is 24%.. There have been more than 60 insider attacks on NATO/ISAF troops. Everyone thinks that external assistance will be vital for Afghanistan post 2014 but all the possible donors are looking at force cut backs and reduced expenditures. The economies are in decline and the conflict has had serious implications. There were almost 349 suicides among US personnel returning from the conflict zone in 2012 while combat casualties were 295.

The conclusion that all have reached is that the reconciliation and peace process must succeed in creating a reasonably stable post 2014 environment and not just be a cover for a peaceful and face saving exit out of Afghanistan – an exit that has already begun with the movement of equipment through Pakistan and Uzbekistan. The Taliban are virtually in control of the southern areas of Kunar and Nuristan. They remain an active fighting force with Mullah Omar as the guiding leader and an umbrella organization –Shurae Marqabah exercising operational control and financial support. The Tehrik Taleban Pakistan is also reported to get support from the Shura that has the Haqqani Network and others like Mullah Nazir, Gul Bahadur and Hakimullah Mehsud under its wing. The TTP has linkages with the eight major militant organizations operating within Pakistan. The recent conditional dialogue offer by the TTP to Pakistan is obviously coordinated with the participation of the Afghan Taliban in dialogues in various forums e.g in Qatar and Paris.

No one would want a situation in which Afghan government and ANSF control is confined to Kabul with the countryside under warlord and Taliban control. Nor would a meltdown inside Afghanistan be a desirable outcome. Already there are reports of an exodus and flight of capital with real estate prices rising in Peshawer and Quetta – the largest cities in Pakistan’s western provinces. Chaos in Afghanistan post 2014 could turn this into a massive flow of refugees across the borders. Pakistan, as well as other neighbors of Afghanistan, has learnt the hard way that supporting one faction in a civil war situation can be disastrous and in such a situation the wise course is to stay out of the turmoil and concentrate on safeguarding your own borders and internal situation.

Military power has had its day. There was the initial ‘shock and awe’ phase, then the surge phases and finally the COIN – counter insurgency strategy. The enduring strategy now seems to be the global targeted assassination program using Drones, Special Forces and air power with a technical and HUMINT – human intelligence – network deployed to identify targets. Al Qaeda may have been marginalized in Afghanistan but its ideology has spread to the Arab lands and Africa and elsewhere. Indiscriminate use of military power and Drones could pit these assets against the Islamic world with serious consequences. The US ‘pivot to Asia’, the US role in the Pacific and ideas like the ‘new silk road all indicate a retreat from military interventionist tendencies – a trend being seen in the Arab Spring and the Syrian situations. There is, however, the US obsession with Iran, and more recently North Korea with its third nuclear test has added another dimension to the evolving situation.

Pakistan always advocated a focus on the end game in Afghanistan to remove the uncertainties that were driving the turmoil in that country. Now with the focus on dialogue for reconciliation and peace Pakistan has put its weight behind the process. Taliban have been released  though there have been concerns about keeping tabs on then as some have reportedly returned to the battlefield. A ‘core group’ is meeting periodically to review and monitor the situation. There have been talks with Taliban representatives – though without significant progress so far – but more are planned including a Pakistan-Afghanistan sponsored gathering of religious leaders. The ‘High Peace Council’ has drawn up a phased peace plan generally endorsed by all but still far from the implementation stage. The US is deciding on its post 2014 presence in Afghanistan at the massive  bases in Bagram, Jalalabad, Heart and Kandahar. A status of forces agreement is also being worked out.  The recent trilateral in the UK has achieved no tangible result except for a reaffirmation of confidence in the peace process and President Karzai’s statements have been confusing and contradictory.

Much will depend on the future US-Taliban and the Taliban-Kabul interaction. Integration and power sharing are the key words but the Taliban have yet to shift from their maximum positions. A cease fire could bring peace and allow the democratic process to move forward with elections in 2014 if President Karzai can look beyond his own political interests. So far there is neither peace nor democracy and no real reconstruction. With the US election over there is likely to be more focus and movement in the Afghan policy. Diplomacy also has to focus on the external ring around Afghanistan – Pakistan, Iran, Central Asian States, China, Russia and India.

Pakistan has to cope with a deteriorating internal security situation and a declining economy as it moves towards elections mid 2013. The recent difficulty in the India-Pakistan relationship indicated the fragility of the normalization process between the two countries. Both have unresolved issues and nuclear and delivery system programs that are dynamic – with India citing China for its buildup and Pakistan looking at the growing asymmetries with India. The fact that US policy in South Asia hinges on India forces Pakistan to look at alternatives and fall back options though it considers its relationship with the US to be extremely important. The silver lining is the fact that cooperation in the region could bring enormous economic dividends to all – especially in the trade and energy fields. The true potential will only be spelt out once the focus shifts to the big picture and the development programs linked to that picture. Pakistan’s priority has to be its own internal security and economy and for this it has to secure its borders and ensure good bilateral relations with its neighbors and the world.

(Spearhead Analyses are collaborative efforts and not attributable to a single individual)