ISAF will quit Afghanistan much before 2014

Given the state of US and western economies that have yet not got out of the whirlpool of global recession and the ongoing ‘Occupy Wall Street’ movement which is gaining ground, I have a hunch that the ISAF will quit Afghanistan in haste much before 2014.

By Brig Asif Haroon Raja

When Barak Hussein Obama took over the reins of power in January 2009, war on terror conceived by George W. Bush Junior and his team of neo-cons in October 2001 had reached the age of seven years and three months. Obama made a u-turn on his promise of bringing a change and continued with the policy of his predecessor of using force as the singular option to control terrorism and extremism. At the very outset, he formulated Af-Pak policy in which Afghanistan and Pakistan border region was marked as single battle zone under single command based in Kabul. It envisaged NATO conducting hot pursuits inside FATA whenever the situation warranted. In order to wrest the initiative from militant forces, Obama transferred Gen McChrystal from Baghdad to Kabul and also ordered move of 17000 US troops from Iraqi War Theater to Afghanistan to enable the ISAF to launch a major operation in Helmand in Southern Afghanistan. Richard Holbrooke was appointed as Af-Pak envoy to coordinate and monitor progress on both sides of the Durand Line and to push Pakistan to do as told to do.

The US had to grudgingly modify its military strategy of making Durand Line redundant when Gen Kayani took a firm stand and said that sanctity of the western border must be respected by both sides. In reaction, the US decided to make maximum use of drones in FATA. Although it was also violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty, our NRO cleansed civilian leadership gave its consent on the plea that both the US and Pakistan had common objective of defeating terrorism.

When the much-hyped military operation in Helmand launched by US-UK troops in February 2009 failed to throw out the Taliban, and later on suffered reverses in Nuristan in the east, Gen McChrystal sought further reinforcement in September 2010. Obama reluctantly agreed to provide additional 30,000 troops in December 2010 but also desired troop exit from July 2011 onwards. He thus gave another chance to the military to show tangible progress in next 18 months or else quit.

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Surprisingly, the two troop surges instead of helping the ISAF in containing the Taliban rising power resulted in reverses and heavy casualties. 2010 proved to be the costliest year in which 707 battle casualties took place. Cases of mental diseases rose alarmingly high and so was the case with discipline both among ISAF and Afghan security forces. Critical security situation in Afghanistan coupled with mounting domestic pressure to bring home US troops, growing unpopularity of the war as well as downslide in economy and election year of 2012 drawing near propelled Obama to stick to his drawdown plan. He gave December 2014 as the cutout date and asked Pentagon to expedite training of Afghan Army and Police so that security duties could be handed over to them. Since Obama didn’t want to repeat the mistake Ronald Reagan had made to abandon Afghanistan in 1989 without stabilizing it, he therefore directed his political section to open talks with Taliban and work out a negotiated political settlement. To this end he re-emphasized that foremost mission of the US was to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaeda.

Efforts were made to befriend Taliban leaders and convince them to get detached from al-Qaeda which had been the principle source of their woes. Hamid Karzai and his half-brother Wali Karzai, a leading drug baron and blue-eyed boy of CIA, both having good connections with notables of Pashtun community were also encouraged to play their part in wooing as many Taliban leaders and induce them to renounce violence and agree to share power. Hamid Karzai regime and the US pinned high hopes in Prof Burhanuddin Rabbani appointed as Chairman High Peace Council.

Rabbani might have succeeded in his mission of convincing sizeable number of Taliban leaders to accept Karzai’s offer of preferring peace over violence and sharing power with Northern Alliance. However, outside players led by USA tried to act smart by opening backdoor secret channels so as to induce and bribe moderate as well as hard line Taliban leaders with a view to isolating Mullah Omar and others who refused to accept America’s three conditions of surrendering arms and renouncing violence, severing ties with al-Qaeda and accepting US drafted western model democracy. In other words, the spoilers worked on the strategy of dividing the Taliban with a view to weakening them and then negotiating from position of strength.

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Ibrahim Haqqani and Sirajuddin Haqqani held separate meetings with US officials. Latter was offered share in power provided he ditched Mullah Omar. He made it clear that without the blessing of his Ameer ul Momineen, he would not be able to take decisions at his own. Haqqanis were given the title of Haqqani Network (HN) and declared the most dangerous outfit when they hit military targets in Kabul several times with impunity. Murder of Rabbani blocked the peace effort. These attacks blew up the story spun by ISAF media team that lot of progress had been made on the military front. No evidence had ever been proffered to prove that ISAF had turned the corner, or that militants were put on defensive, or beaten.  

Nonplussed by the ever growing power of Taliban and not knowing how to contain it, spin doctors of ISAF started fabricating excuses to hide poor performance of US military. They said that the insurgency in Southern Afghanistan owed its success to Mullah Omar led Quetta Shura and that of Eastern Afghanistan to North Waziristan (NW) based HN duly protected by ISI. The US gave vent to its enragement by throwing the blame at the doorsteps of Pakistan and making it the scapegoat. Since 22 September when outgoing Admiral Mullen went ballistics, the US officials have been firing salvos at Pakistan relentlessly. The US Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said Washington had to consider military action against Pakistan. Max Boot suggested that the US should adopt a tough approach towards ISI and should treat it the way Iran’s Quds Force in Iraq was treated. Congressmen are pressing for total stoppage of aid to Pakistan. 

The US role as chief power broker has waned, but Pakistan’s importance has increased in future negotiations for a peaceful settlement. It is this hard reality which the US knows and hence cannot afford to ditch Pakistan at this critical juncture when ISAF’s safe withdrawal is in jeopardy. Karzai also knows that Pakistan and not the US will provide the last straw to save him from drowning. The US claim that it can do without Pakistan’s support is wishful. In the absence of Taliban protagonists, regional initiative in the form of Istanbul Conference on 2 November and Bonn meeting on 5 December will prove unproductive.

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To hope that Afghan Army will fill the vacuum, or unpopular and corrupt Karzai regime will amicably manage the affairs once ISAF departs will be idealistic. In case another 1989 Geneva Accord like agreement takes place without the involvement of Taliban, Afghanistan will once again get caught up in internecine war as was the case after the withdrawal of Soviet troops. This time the bloodshed and instability will be far greater since Northern Alliance has 174,000 strong well equipped Army and hugely expanded police force and ethnic hatred has heightened. This trained force will splinter into private militias under warlords. Disorder in Afghanistan will once again adversely impact Pakistan. 

Pakistan can play its role in facilitating process of political settlement of Afghan imbroglio more effectively and to the advantage of USA if it is trusted and its sovereignty is respected. Browbeating and humiliating Pakistan will complicate matters particularly when anti-Americanism in Pakistan has scaled new heights and ruling regime has become fragile. Shortsighted actions by hawkish elements in USA at the behest of Indian and Jewish lobbies will not be in the interest of both America and Pakistan.

Given the state of US and western economies that have yet not got out of the whirlpool of global recession and the ongoing ‘Occupy Wall Street’ movement which is gaining ground, I have a hunch that the ISAF will quit Afghanistan in haste much before 2014. If the US wants an honorable exit, the only way out is to put an immediate end to bloodshed and give peace a chance, involve Taliban in peace talks by discarding pre-conditions and desire for permanent military bases, and direct all out efforts towards forming a broad based interim government.