The beginning of the end or the end of the beginning?

The US figured they had the watches, but the Afghans have always had the time. Now, with a US troop pull-out becoming a reality, will the region descend into chaos once more?

    In less than a month’s time, US forces will begin pulling out of Afghanistan. Even though the move will be more symbolic and not a total withdrawal, it will pave the way forward for an eventual handover of Afghan security to the Afghan National Army (ANA) by 2014.

    It is a daunting task, by any stretch of the imagination.

    Afghanistan was bigger than Iraq and was even more rugged and suitable for a long drawn out guerilla war.

    The Afghan Taliban, the main adversary in the conflict, had already made its position clear when it said it wanted a total withdrawal of all foreign forces from Afghanistan before any talks could begin.

    Now US President Barack Obama has made his plans public and that means an almost 30 per cent reduction by the autumn of 2012.

    The Americans and their allies are hoping they will be able to hand over the task to the fledgling ANA which is already near the 300,000 mark.

    It is hoped that by 2014 the Afghan army would have sufficient boots on the ground to take over control of their territory.

    The issue is not just that they will have to have sufficient numbers, however, but that they will need to be well-trained and well-equipped enough to fight against the Taliban, who are more organised and stronger than at any time since the invasion of Afghanistan almost ten years ago.

    If the past is anything to go by, the real test of the Afghan army will be maintaining the loyalties of its various ethnic groups.

    During the civil war after the Russians forces pulled out in 1989, many soldiers deserted and switched sides. 

    The Afghan army crumbled like a house of cards and despite attempts to beef up loyalists like Najeebullah in Kabul, Moscow was not able to keep the army intact as a coherent fighting force.

    The likelihood of such an eventuality repeating itself cannot be brushed aside. 

    The feeling is that once the Americans tone down their presence in Afghanistan, the Afghan army may not be able to cope with the fight.

    While it is easy for the Americans to shoot their opponents (whether suspected or real), the Afghan army may not be in a position to afford that luxury.

    They will be aware that their opposition lives within the same territoriy, and is always within striking distance .

    As the fighting against the Taliban has intensifies, there have already been numerous cases of desertions within the army.

    In the eyes of some senior analysts, the present Afghan army was cannon fodder for the US and NATO forces.

    The policy of pitting Afghans versus other Afghans was always likely to fuel the probability of a civil war, the ultimate benefactors of which will likely be the Afghan Taliban.

    No wonder there was talk of the need for a political solution to the crisis. In the eyes of one senior US diplomat, the talking should actually have begun years ago.

    The Americans had already made the blunder of lumping the Taliban in with al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.

    The fact is that no Taliban or Afghan was directly or indirectly  involved in the attacks on the World Trade Centre towers and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, and the Americans went after both.

    While they may now be more confident about winning the their battle against al-Qaeda, they are far from winning the war against the Taliban.

    The Americans may be looking at this summer as the beginning of the end, with the withdrawal of 10,000 troops, but the Afghan Taliban are just getting started with their summer offensive.

    The Americans figured that they had the watches, but the truth is that it was the Taliban who have always had the time.

    It remains unclear, therefore, whether this is the beginning of the end, or the end of the beginning of a new era of chaos for the region.

    The real fear here remains that with the US and NATO leaving, will the other regional states be sucked once more into a proxy war? 


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