Friday 17 February 2012

Heading for an Early Exit?

Ryan O'Sullivan

March 2011: Burhanuddin Rabbani, former Afghan president and head of the High Peace Council addresses delegates as the council meets in Kabul. The Guardian
Afghanistan is in need of strong international political stability, direction and will-power if it is to see a successful transition period in the coming months and years. Such a vision, however, seems fanciful at this current juncture what with the recent rhetoric from the U.S in conjunction with a failure to secure productive negotiations.
The U.S has disproportionately contributed hundreds of billions of dollars to the war in Afghanistan and currently provides nearly 70% of the ground troops, therefore the words used recently by Leon Panetta, The Secretary of State for Defense, are not to be taken lightly. On February the 1st Mr Panetta addressed a group of journalists ahead of a meeting of NATO ministers during which he said:
“And 2013 becomes an even more critical year, more critical because we’ll be going into the final transitions, final tranches, and those’ll be some of the most difficult areas. But nevertheless, you know, our goal is to complete all of that transition in 2013 and then, hopefully, by mid- to the latter part of 2013, we'll be able to make -- you know, to make a transition from a combat role to a training, advice and assist role, which is basically fulfilling what Lisbon was all about.”
This position is not ‘basically fulfilling what Lisbon was all about’. Rather, the Lisbon strategy of November 2010 focused on creating a coordinated approach which brought about a phased transfer of security and responsibility to the Afghan government by the end of 2014. It was about creating conditions that are conducive to a physically secure Afghan state which is equipped with the leadership, resources and experience needed to combat terrorism and a fierce insurgency. It was about analysing the situation on the ground and securing internal and regional relationships, the outcome of which determined the pace of transition and withdrawal.
Instead it seems that the timetable has been brought forward by as much as 18 months and the conditions based approach has been swept to one side, which is a dangerous move. As it currently stands only half of the country’s population is controlled by Afghan National Security Forces, with the support of International Security Assistance Force, and the most dangerous areas are still under the full responsibility of ISAF troops. Indeed, Taliban attacks in the southern and eastern regions of Afghanistan have ‘risen sharply in recent months, according to figures released by the U.S.-led coalition, a sign that the allied offensive against the insurgency is yet to blunt its potency. The figures are in contrast to the broader trend of decreasing violence nationwide depicted by the NATO mission. That depiction is challenged by non-government organizations active in Afghanistan; Human Rights Watch describes 2011 as "the most violent year ever."’

Leon Panetta said Nato forces would begin leaving the front line by mid-2013 Photo: AFP/GETTY. The Telegraph.
In the U.S, public opinion for the war is on the decline, maintaining 90,000 troops is an expensive endeavour and presidential elections are on the agenda. Similar factors affect France as President Nicolas Sarkozy has recently announced an accelerated withdrawal of French combat troops. What this all shows is a further decline in international resolve and credibility, highlighting an inability to fight lengthy wars. This may prove to be damaging in the future.
Yet, even in a situation of military dominance and international resolve, in such wars a political resolution must be had. Internally, this involves the Taliban and the Afghan government; externally it must include regional states, such as Pakistan. With the murder of former President Rabbani, who had been head of the High Peace Council leading efforts to talk with the Taliban, fruitful negotiations do not look likely. 
There is a glimmer of hope and this lies in the potential for talks in Qatar who are to host a Taliban office for talks to begin, but even this is overshadowed with great uncertainty for several reasons. Firstly, the Taliban have not yet said that they want to participate in peace talks and could instead be using the publicity of an office in Qatar to further their cause. Secondly, why would the Taliban want to negotiate when it is quite likely that they see the West as retreating? Thirdly, Hina Rabbani Khar, Pakistan’s foreign minister, has stated that real negotiations are “miles away”. Finally, there are many players that need to be part of negotiations all of whom will have reservations, different ideas on peace talks and mistrust of one another. 
The issue of trust or the lack thereof, is a big one. With its porous border and regional influence, Pakistan must play a significant role in any negotiations concerning the future of Afghanistan. Yet for quite some time there have been allegations of Pakistan’s collusion with the Taliban, its influence on the Taliban leadership and the role of its intelligence agency, the ISI. Given the changing politics, the tenuous security situation and the outlook for immediate negotiations, something needs to change quickly if ISAF is to achieve its main objective: to create the conditions for a sustainable level of security, capable of preventing Afghanistan becoming a terrorist ‘safe haven’ once again. 
In order to combat these issues the U.S must be clear that it stands by its commitment to fight and train with the ANSF right up until the end of 2014 and that this policy will only change if the conditions on the ground permit. This means being flexible with the willingness and ability to commit, in a combat role if necessary, after this date. Let us not forget what Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the NATO Secretary General, said as part of the Lisbon strategy in 2010, “NATO is in this for the long term. We will not transition until our Afghan partners are ready…We will stay as long as it takes to finish our job.” 
If the U.S and other NATO members fail in Afghanistan the fear is not only of a return to a state similar to that of 2001, but of a loss of credibility in NATO itself. This could have terrible consequences for the alliance as its future rhetoric and actions, used to prevent threatening behaviour in support of international security, may not be taken seriously thereby further increasing the threat. 

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