By Air Commodore ®KhaIid Iqbal                 

During his recent visit to Kabul, Defence Secretary Robert Gates said that the United States is in ‘well position’ to begin withdrawing troops from Afghanistan in July this year. He cautioned that any reductions in U.S. forces would likely be small and that a significant U.S force will remain in combat for the rest of 2011. Fresh proclamations by a number of US officials indicating American stay beyond 2014 have raised many eyebrows. Articulation of a plan for establishing permanent bases in Afghanistan has also not gone down well with those who wish an early and happy ending of this sordid conflict.

Though saner voices are screaming that the American Government is broke, Pentagon’s budget request for 2012 seeks additional funding of over $100 billion for Afghan war. Besides prohibitive financial tag, Afghanistan war is a cause of colossal loss of lives. Unwillingness of American officials to seize reality is having its telling effects; it took 2,520 days of the war to take 500 American lives and just 627 days for the next 500. Suffering by ordinary Afghans is even greater. Around 2500 non-combatants were killed and 4000 wounded during first 10 months of the last year. The rate of Afghan civilian deaths is up by 20 percent compared to the year before. A United Nations finding has revealed that targeted killings of civilians in Afghanistan have doubled last year. Civilian deaths have been the highest amongst all the killings, steadily rising by the year.

According to International Council on Security and Development, 90% of Afghan territory is now under the control of or in the grip of insurgents. Questions are being asked about why US soldiers are dying at such a fast pace and if there is any rationale for spending about US $ 200 billion a year on an un-winnable war.

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General David Petraeus is working overtime to convince the Americans that his American and NATO troops in Afghanistan have made more progress than has been reported. Speaking to The New York Times in an interview, he said in addition to progress in Afghanistan’s southern regions, the forces have stopped or reversed Taliban advances in Kabul as well as in the country’s northern and western parts. “The momentum of the Taliban has been halted in much of the country and reversed in some important areas…“The Taliban have never been under the pressure that they were put under over the course of the last 8 to 10 months.” he told the Times. Petraeus said US Special Operations forces and coalition commandos were involved in more than 1,600 operations in the three months prior to March, resulting in the capture or killing of about 3,000 insurgents. In fact there is an unending chain of killing innocent children, women and non-combatant men through application of disproportionate force by ISAF/NATO and then apologising for it. 

The Afghanistan NGO Safety Office, which provides security advice for organizations operating on the ground in Afghanistan, said in its quarterly report, “No matter how authoritative the source of any such claim [of progress], messages of this nature are solely intended to influence American and European public opinion.”

While addressing Asia Society, Hillary Clinton emphasised the “three surges”; military, civil sector capacity building and intensified diplomatic push to bring the Afghan conflict to an end. These three surges are hpw a part of Obama’s vision for transition that would see troop reductions beginning in July this year and concluding by 2014. Hillary side stepped the daunting reality of proliferation of insurgency to new areas, and its pattern of cutting across ethnic lines. Nevertheless, she repeated the rote line that “the tribal areas along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan remain the epicentre of violent extremism”.

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United States has little hope of an outright victory in the long war. India is struggling to fit in the American shoes and extend its strategic outreach to Afghanistan. Iran is jockeying between Pakistan and China on one side and India and Russia on the other hand to balance the ethnic and sectarian fallout form post-America Afghanistan. Pakistan aims for a friendly government in Kabul. Russia wants to fixate America on long term basis; it has begun to enjoy the American agony.

Effective COIN is waged alongside a credible local partner, a government that commands the respect and authority of its citizens. As regards legitimacy of the government in Afghanistan, Dexter Filkins recently reported for the ‘The New Yorker’:  “Graft infests nearly every interaction between the Afghan state and its citizens….The Afghan government does not so much serve the people as prey upon them.”  Filkins categorises the Afghan government as “a vertically integrated criminal enterprise…Politics and business in Kabul are increasingly dominated by criminal networks and their patrons in the Afghan government.” 

A November 2010 survey by the Afghan Centre for Socio-Economic and Opinion Research found that favourable opinion about America has dipped to an all-time low of 43% among Afghans. A CNN Opinion Research poll last December found that 63% Americans now oppose the war and share the Afghan opinion that the troops should leave.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as well as Defence Secretary Robert Gates have called for dialogue with “moderate” Taliban. Whether the Taliban are willing to talk to them is a different matter. They have made it clear that there cannot be any talks unless all foreign troops leave Afghanistan.

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Reports indicate that while the Americans have lost the war, they still want to stay in Afghanistan; hence there are desperate attempts to strike a deal with the Taliban. They have even hinted that they would be prepared to accept a power sharing agreement with the Taliban. A report published by Steve Coll, in the New Yorker, indicates that the Obama Administration has entered into direct, secret talks with senior Afghan Taliban leaders. The discussions are believed to be of an exploratory nature and do not yet amount to a peace negotiation.

Since mid-2010, the situation has tilted in favour of Taliban. There is likelihood of heightened military operations as soon as spring sets in. Taliban have already stepped up attacks against usual targets in Afghanistan.

American arguments on war are rudderless and circular, reaching no conclusion: ‘We cannot win Afghanistan without turning Pakistan, but we cannot turn the Pakistanis without winning in Afghanistan’. 

Fundamental challenge for American policymakers is to reconcile the rhetoric and reality. They need to seize the opportunity and leave by 2014. Their intent and actions should conjointly focus at withdrawal. Sending a positive signal one day, and contradicting it the next day would further erode American rating amongst Afghans. Time for an honourable exit is running out.