Washington, DC – Everything has been moving forward, step by step. At the beginning of May, after months of negotiation, US President Barack Obama made a triumphal appearance at the Afghan Presidential Palace, on the first anniversary of the US military’s brilliantly successful raid against Osama bin Laden, to meet with a beaming Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
There the two leaders signed a long-awaited Strategic Partnership Agreement, assuring US support for the fledgling Afghan democracy for an additional decade beyond 2014, while simultaneously pledging Afghanistan to continued progress on corruption, protection of human rights, and good governance. Between congratulatory sessions with cheering US troops, the US president delivered a speech to the American people, touting his success in hunting down the architect of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the US and in having met US military goals in Afghanistan, permitting the US to end its war there and to begin a new chapter in that once-troubled country.
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This weekend, the process will move forward yet again, all according to the script, when Obama hosts a NATO summit in Chicago. There the allied nations will ratify their plan to make a crisp transition from combat to a training and counterterrorism mission next year, in anticipation of a full withdrawal of combat forces in 2014, when the government of Afghanistan will be prepared to assume full responsibility for security throughout the country. The heads of state meeting in Chicago will also commit themselves to a finalised security budget, assuring Afghanistan of the means to sustain the local forces needed in the decade following 2014.
This is the narrative being presented by the White House to the American people. Not coincidentally, it dovetails nicely with the president’s reelection campaign. Also not coincidentally, an additional 23,000 American troops, the remainder of those dispatched to carry out what the administration claims to have been a successful “surge” campaign, will depart Afghanistan by September, well in time for the November US presidential elections.
But this story, which conforms to what has long been referred to sotto voce by the US military as the president’s “victory narrative” is, in fact, an elaborate illusion. Let us consider: When President Obama arrived in Afghanistan on May 2, he did so as a thief in the night, remaining only six hours under cover of darkness, and meeting with his Afghan counterpart at midnight. Sensibly, he spent most of his time on a former Soviet – now American – military base. And within hours after he cleared Afghan airspace, Kabul was rocked by a combined car-bomb and small-arms attack on a Western compound.
The military successes he touted in his speeches are essentially hollow. For all the panache of the assault in Abbottabad, bin Laden had to be dragged from the dustbin of history to be dispatched by US troops. And the hard-fought gains won by Obama’s surge in the south of Afghanistan cannot be sustained by Afghan forces; as US forces steadily draw down, vast swathes of territory are already being re-ceded to the Taliban.
The agreement signed with such fanfare is in fact a place-holder, a hollow shell. It says nothing about how many US or NATO troops will remain after 2014, and little about what they will do or what legal immunities, if any, they will have. All this remains to be negotiated. The document commits the US to provide financial support to Afghan security forces for years to come, but does not say how much. Yes, it is true that such funds must be appropriated each year by the US Congress, but that fact has not impeded the US from establishing and maintaining financial obligations to, for instance, Israel and Egypt.
And while the Strategic Partnership Agreement nominally commits Afghanistan to various improvements in governance, it is silent on the critical issue of constitutional reform – without which stemming corruption and reconciliation with the Taliban, the two most important pillars of future stability, will simply not be possible. Constitutional reform, by the way, is not even on the Western agenda.
Meanwhile, despite a lot of brave talk, the main preoccupation of the NATO allies set to gather this weekend in Chicago is how to most quickly and expeditiously run for the exits. Newly elected French President Francois Hollande is setting the tone. Eager to out-do the man he replaced, who had already advanced the timetable for withdrawal of French combat troops by a year from what had been previously agreed upon, Hollande’s only regret is that he lacks the logistic capacity to pull his men and equipment out by the end of the year, as promised during the campaign. All indications are that others will soon follow. And the US professes belief that these same allies, so chary of spilling blood in Afghanistan, will compensate by providing a substantial portion of the annual $4.1bn conservatively estimated to be needed to sustain Afghan security forces, and do so despite the parlous state of European finances.
It is not at all surprising that Obama, a politician, should try to put the best political face possible on a rapidly deteriorating situation in South Asia, and to make what is in fact a sensible retrenchment from his past failed policies seem instead like a heroic victory for those policies. This is what politicians do, when they can. But to the extent that Americans are being misled by their own rhetoric, the situation becomes all the more fraught with danger.
The Americans should know by now that undisciplined and inefficient Afghan security forces, seen by many as a tool of the Northern Alliance, will not be able to exert control over Pashtun areas without the active engagement of the local inhabitants, even if their numbers swell to 350,000 by 2014, as planned.
In fact, it is far more likely that Afghanistan will lapse again into civil war. And yet, the US administration acts as though it genuinely believes that by training and equipping an unsustainably large Afghan force, it can somehow shift all security responsibilities and defeat the Taliban by 2017, at which point Afghan security forces will drop to 230,000. Senior Afghan officials are unhelpfully pointing out that the $4.1bn nominally budgeted for the Afghan security forces can only maintain the smaller 230,000-man force. With the aggregate ability of the US and NATO to provide even that level of funding very much in doubt, it is an open question where the additional funds for a much larger force will come during the three-year interim period arbitrarily set for the Taliban’s defeat.
Speaking anonymously with a wink and a nod, US officials point out that irrespective of what is ultimately agreed upon between the US and Afghanistan, and irrespective of what else might happen, the continuing US military presence will provide the platform for counterterrorism operations designed to keep international terrorists at bay. That is well and good, but the struggle in Afghanistan has always been about elimination of safe haven, which can only be accomplished in Afghanistan by locally based forces indigenous to the areas concerned. It is not at all clear that programmes designed to produce such an outcome over time will be part of the US post-2014 strategy.
The Obama administration will doubtless persist in doing and saying what it feels is necessary to contribute to the president’s reelection. But if it persists in acting as though it can no longer distinguish between hard reality and the cheery fictions of its own making, it courts genuine disaster in South Asia.
Robert Grenier is a retired, 27-year veteran of the CIA’s Clandestine Service. He was Director of the CIA’s Counter-Terrorism Center from 2004 to 2006.