A risky Afghan endgame

Did Obama rain on the Afghan parade or are there back-channel imperatives that trumped all other considerations?

US forces will complete their withdrawal from Afghanistan by the end of 2016 [AFP]

US President Barack Obama’s recent policy pronouncement on the post-2014 timetable and commitment by the United States to Afghanistan is a tepid, yet risky attempt to interlace domestic political calculations with complex geo-strategic rationale. The release of five known ex-Taliban commanders from Guantanamo in exchange for the only US prisoner in Taliban hands on May 31 also raises new questions about the end-game underway in and around Afghanistan.

By deciding to leave behind 9,800 US military personnel after 2014 (in addition to an unknown number from other NATO countries), and reduce it to a bare minimum by 2017 to be stationed within the embassy compound in Kabul – as part of a two-step disengagement from the war, and contingent on the bilateral security agreement (BSA) expected to be signed soon – Obama has put in motion a series of hedging games with strategic implications on several fronts.

On the Afghan side, some are left perplexed and wondering whether the US definition of bringing the war to a “responsible end” translates into protecting the innumerable gains of the past decade, and standing by Afghans in case there is a serious relapse or imminent threat to the stability of the country or world peace?

Others want to give the US and its allies the benefit of the doubt and remain optimistic that the two countries will adhere to the Strategic Partnership Agreement and other bilateral and multilateral commitments for as long as it is necessary and dependent on conditions on the ground.

The question begets: What if a decentralised al-Qaeda or similar affiliates with sanctuaries in the region, once again pose a strategic threat, not only to Afghanistan, but also to western security interests after 2016? In other words, is there a plan B to fight such a menace in a region spattered with terrorist outfits?

Although the prisoners’ swap was welcomed in some circles, it was unexpected and came close enough on the heels of the announcement to raise eyebrows across Afghanistan. What is not clear yet is whether these steps are interlinked and whether they will help or hinder future peace initiatives?

Since there is no ‘perfect place’ known to mankind to date, it was somewhat unfitting for Obama to pick on one of the world’s most destroyed nations – where the last battle of the Cold War and the first battle of the war on terror were fought valiantly and at high cost by millions of Afghans – and say ‘Afghanistan will not be a perfect place’.

What is equally frustrating for Afghans is the timing of the announcements, just days before a critical presidential run-off election is to take place. The news is obviously disconcerting to millions of men and women who went to the polls on April 5, under Taliban fire, and embraced this fundamental tenant of democracy, made possible partly by the ultimate sacrifice of more than 2,200 Americans and many others from allied nations. That’s not counting the Afghan lives being laid down on a daily basis.

Back-channel imperatives

Did Obama inadvertently rain on the Afghan parade, or are there back-channel imperatives, maybe related to reconciliation efforts and the exchange of prisoners, that trumped all other considerations? If they are related to the peace process, then they should be shared with Afghan authorities, even if the current leadership is in lame-duck status.

The other critical question is whether Afghan security forces, which are increasingly standing on their own, are ready to perform more complex operations i.e. rescue and evacuation, intelligence gathering and providing air cover, in a sustainable manner by 2017? The International Security Assistance Force says yes, but will those capabilities be supported adequately as part of the multi-year funding anticipated by NATO’s own assessment and agreed to at the 2012 summit in Chicago?

Furthermore, how does the new policy mesh with the BSA that has been negotiated, not yet signed by President Hamid Karzai, but expected to be signed by his successor?

On the economic and development side, despite the new policy line, will the US and other donors make good on the pledges announced at the Tokyo donors conference in 2012, not only assuring funding to offset the Afghan revenue deficit, but also supporting critical civilian sectors such as governance, health, education, gender and agriculture?

Following Obama’s speech, US civilian and military officials scrambled to offer assurances for a long-term relationship.

Without going into details, both Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, and commander of US/NATO forces in Afghanistan, General Joseph Dunford, stressed on the enduring nature of the military relationship.

In an op-ed published this week, Rajiv Shah, administrator of the US Agency for International Development (USAID) wrote “as Afghanistan moves forward, so, too, must our commitment to development – one rooted in shared interests and mutual accountability”. However, he is quick to point that US fiscal shortcomings and the mood in Congress will determine the outcome for future funding as the administration has requested of Congress that “assistance to Afghanistan be kept at or near the levels of the past decade, through 2017”.

Despite these reassurances, Afghans are anxious and need more clarity and transparency on the US’ plans.

The other challenge is to manage regional and international expectations and concerns. Since Afghanistan is a geo-political connector, located between several contending fault-lines, the departure of US/NATO forces by 2017 has strategic implications beyond the country itself.

The choices are stark; Afghanistan plays a constructive role as a regional security hub and economic bridge or, as experienced in the 1980s and 90s, it becomes the battleground for power plays and proxy contests with no peace dividend.

The latter option did not – and will not – advance any side’s long-term interests, but the former has the potential to positively change the way the region deals with its demographic and economic conditions. It also offers hope to fighting malignant strands of extremism and terrorism that are spreading and damaging the fabric of our societies.

Regional hedging

The Obama announcement will undoubtedly result in hedging by concerned parties once all the key points are absorbed. It will either push regional stakeholders toward a confrontational stance and attempts at reinvigorating the current proxy conflict waged through the Taliban, or with the right level of assurance and commitment as part of a realistic timeline, strengthening Afghan capabilities to withstand internal and external shocks, and aim for a reasonable and inclusive peaceful outcome.

Since there is no “perfect place” known to mankind to date, it was somewhat unfitting for Obama to pick on one of the world’s most destroyed and traumatised nations – where the last battle of the Cold War and the first battle of the war on terror were fought valiantly and at high cost by millions of Afghans – and say “Afghanistan will not be a perfect place”. That’s a given, as Afghans never aimed for such a lofty benchmark and have always been grateful for international generosity and for the incremental steps being taken to put behind four decades of misfortune.

This mission has not been solely for the sake of Afghanistan. It started out on 9/11 as a response to a tragedy of historic proportions, and has not been in vain either.

If the Afghan people are cautiously optimistic about their future, and know what challenges lie ahead, it is hard to understand why the US or European public, media and politicians would frame it differently. Despite a high degree of fragility, this war’s end-game cannot, and should not, be seen as a failure, given the last 13 years of tremendous resources invested and lives lost.

Obviously, Afghans need to take responsibility and be in the driver’s seat. But the country is a few years off from being entirely on its own. This is not the time to make an error in calculation with the timetable or the level and scope of engagement.

To avoid being trapped by a strategic miscalculation or a defeatist narrative, or basing it purely on one’s own electoral cycles, there is a need to remain smartly engaged for as long as the strategic imperative exists. Only then can one safely claim to be bringing the war to a “responsible end”.

Omar Samad is a 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).