The road ahead for Afghanistan

Most Afghans know they need US and NATO assistance until Afghan forces are ready to hold off the Taliban on their own.

The strategic goal of preventing an al-Qaeda resurgence cannot be taken lightly, writes Samad [EPA]

As all key Afghan and international stakeholders know, the road ahead for Afghanistan is full of pitfalls and obstacles this year. If Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his entourage harboured any illusions that the US was bluffing about a total pullout from Afghanistan, they finally received a call from Barack Obama last week to convey a message to the contrary.

How 2014 shapes up now is going to determine the outcome of America’s longest war, and the fate of Afghanistan as a beleaguered nation seeking peace and stability to allow it to rebuild.

NATO prepares full Afghanistan exit plan

As part of new contingency planning, the US and NATO are now forecasting for a range of options. Unless the stalled Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) – allowing for a residual force post 2014 – is signed by the current or next Afghan president, the zero option could become reality.

Karzai legacy

All indications point to Karzai not signing the BSA before his term ends and opting to pass the buck to his successor. Presidential elections are scheduled for April 5, and it may take anywhere between one to six months, depending on how the process unfolds within the parameters of complex Afghan electoral laws, to get definitive results.

By balking to sign, Karzai believes he can shape his legacy as a sovereign nationalist, while laying claim that he did his best to reconcile with the Taliban, a notion that seems as elusive today as it did several years ago when the myth of reconciliation-at-any-price was advanced by interest-driven circles in Kabul and several Western capitals.

While a small subset of former and ousted Taliban (some of whom have been eliminated under suspicious circumstances) are making overtures and holding talks with Afghan officials, there is no visible momentum, strategic incentive or enough encouragement from their foreign patronage networks to goad the hardcore leadership to lay down arms or enter talks any time soon.

There is, however, a new tone emerging within the Pakistani military when Khawaja Asif, Pakistan’s Defence Minister, warned hardline militants holed up in North Waziristan this week, and said: “If in the post-withdrawal period (by the US/NATO), the Afghan Taliban become stronger and carve out an area of influence in the south and east of Afghanistan, which is next to our border – that’s a scenario we should even avoid thinking of. Because then the Pakistani Taliban will have a powerhouse behind them, to support them. This option is there and everyone should try to avoid it.”

If the post 2014 strategy fails to address the core issues, not only will the people of Afghanistan continue to pay dearly for mythical adventurism, as their hard-won gains will be put in jeopardy, but radical forces will once again be emboldened and re-establish themselves in the Afghan theatre.

Already al-Qaeda is voicing an intent to return to Afghanistan. US intelligence says al-Qaeda’s Afghanistan commander Farouq al-Qahtani is busy reviving local ties and using militants to train a new generation of fighters in anticipation of the American withdrawal.

A misdirected peace process has also caused distraction from the real job of hunting down state and non-state culprits who are involved in financing, arming, training and providing sanctuary to militants and terrorists in the region and beyond.

The most acute worry for many Afghans is that a full pullout, or minimum commitment in the order of 3,000-6,000 for a short-term tenure will not only send the wrong signal, but would also jeopardise the ability of the Afghan forces to stand on their own.

Al-Qaeda comeback?

To safeguard the gains made in sectors such as education, health, media and human rights, Afghans, especially the national security forces, will need to be at the forefront of this struggle while the door for a comprehensive political solution is kept open as part of a more realistic calculus.

This is where the BSA and international support – as pledged in donor conferences in Tokyo (2011) and Chicago (2012) – can play a vital role for reinforcing political and economic stability. Without the BSA and NATO commitments, the assistance to prop up Afghan security forces and support the economy – estimated at more than $8 bn per year – would dry up quickly.

The good news is that none of the leading presidential candidates have indicated an un-willingness to sign the BSA, but much will depend now on what happens to Afghanistan in the interim.

The interim – the critical period between elections and the end of the year – can see a surge by the Taliban to either disrupt the election process or to put added pressure on a lame duck president.

It can also provoke Karzai, who is adamant to maintain a certain level of influence over the next leader, to manipulate election results through a well-oiled patronage network when the Afghan people expect him to stay above-board.

It is also the period for strategic hedging by various groups within the country as well as regional players. Such actions could have a destabilising effect if excessive hedging disturbs the internal balance of power or inflames regional rivalries.

Meanwhile, Washington is dithering with small details. Some seem less focused on the strategic values inherent in committing to stand by Afghanistan, and more on tactical political squabbles, while others are burdened by war fatigue and are prematurely looking for the quickest exit door.

The strategic goal of preventing an al-Qaeda (or other similar Taliban-affiliated outfits like the Haqqanis or Central Asian militant) resurgence in coveted parts of Afghanistan cannot be taken lightly.

This means that the US and NATO will have to deploy enough non-combat manpower on the ground to perform advisory and training duties as needed.

Inside Story – Afghan elections: Stirring violence and hope

The difference between 3,000 and 10,000 residual forces may not seem that significant given the sizeable numbers deployed over the last decade, but the psychological and operational impact inside Afghanistan and its vicinity will be considerable, and might even determine the outcome of war and peace in the years to come.

The most acute worry fo rmany Afghans is that a full pullout, or minimum commitment in the order of 3,000-6,000 for a short-term tenure will not only send the wrong signal, but would also jeopardise the ability of the Afghan forces to stand on their own, given their marginal access to tactical weapons, sophisticated intelligence gathering and air support.

In the first interaction via a secure video teleconference in almost eight months (in comparison to George W. Bush’s bi-monthly contacts), the two leaders last week also discussed election transparency, reconciliation and regional complexities. 

With the writing on the wall now, the ball is squarely in Karzai’s narrowing court and then, in case he refuses to sign, in the court of his successor. 

Omar Samad is senior Central Asia fellow at New America Foundation. He was the Ambassador of Afghanistan to France (2009-2011) and to Canada (2004-2009) and Spokesperson for the Afghan Foreign Ministry (2002-2004).