Transition in Afghanistan in further crisis

By Brig Asif Haroon Raja

In the aftermath of 9/11 which paralyzed the American society, when born-again Christian George W. Bush backed by intellectually bankrupt bunch of neo-cons announced his decision to launch a crusade against Afghanistan, there was a thunderous applause from Americans. The Europeans joined the chorus of jingoists. Tony Blair acted more loyal than the king and volubly supported the invasion. Americans, Europeans, Jews and Hindus in India were ecstatic over easy victory in Afghanistan.

Drunk with power, the US opened another front in Iraq in March 2003 on false charges without consolidating gains in Afghanistan and without caring for the opposition from home/Europe. Easy entry and occupation of Iraq incited cowboy Bush to boast that ‘war is over and mission accomplished’. Dispersion diluted the war effort of the aggressors enabling the Taliban to re-enter and regroup in southern/eastern Afghanistan which were their strongholds. Segment of Al-Qaeda shifted to Iraq from where it gradually morphed into Al-Qaeda Arabian Peninsula with main base in Yemen. Resistance on two fronts made things difficult for the US Central Command under Gen David Petraeus and with passage of time the situation kept worsening in both the theatres of war. Suicide bombers and IEDs caused heavy casualties upon occupying forces.

A sea change has come in the thinking and sentiments of the Americans after the fiasco in Iraq and 13 years old disastrous war in Afghanistan. The cheering Americans are now pleading Obama to stop the insane war and bring home the soldiers. They have no appetite for a military adventure in any part of the world. Very few in USA or Europe favored military confrontation with Russia/Iran backed Syria. Only 7% people in USA expressed support for a military action in Ukraine after Crimea was forcibly occupied by Russian troops. NATO is shy of coming to the rescue of troops loyal to Kiev fighting pro-Moscow forces in eastern Ukraine.

This change has come about as a result of debacle in Iraq and now in Afghanistan coupled with global economic recession. In Iraq, the US-NATO troops lost over 5000 troops in the 8 years inconclusive war and spent billions of dollars but failed to achieve any of the stated objectives. They had to abandon Iraq in December 2011. A new militant force called ISIS is closing on to Baghdad after capturing two provinces of Nineveh and Anbar. The US trained Iraqi National Army is hard pressed to save the sinking Noor-al Maliki’s Shiite regime or to stop the sectarian war the US triggered. US-NATO is in no position to jump into the fray.

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The 150,000 US led ISAF in Afghanistan have suffered worst humiliation. Despite employing excessive military force and resorting to extreme torture, few thousand ill-clad/badly equipped Mujahideen led by Mullah Omar could not be subdued. Hamid Karzai’s regime installed in December 2001 failed on all accounts and the 370,000 strong ANSF trained by US and British military could not match the grit and determination of resistance forces.

After suffering 2400 fatalities, tens of thousands injuries, the same number contracting mental diseases and a large number committing suicides, the US led coalition have finally packed up their baggage and are ready to depart by end December 2014 without achieving any of their objectives. The initial plan for the residual force was to stay up to 2024, but the plan ran into troubles when the peace negotiations with the Taliban stalled and Karzai refused to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) and left it to the next president to sign it.

While the Pentagon has pledged to spare 9800 US troops, the US is expecting about 2000 to 4000 troops from NATO to form part of residual force to train/advise and bolster the spirits of Afghan Army till 2016.The US is banking upon UK and Australia to provide at least 2000 troops since France, Germany and other NATO countries have shown complete disinterest. Of the 9800 US troops confined to the eight military bases, 1800 will be from Special Operations which would conduct counter terrorism operations against remnants of al-Qaeda.

Stay of residual force is linked with signing of BSA, immunity from Afghan laws and freedom to conduct search operations. The price the US and its western allies are ready to give for the residual force is $8.1 billion annually with half of it for the ANSF. With Afghanistan’s economy entirely dependent upon US aid, it has no capacity to finance 370,000 strong ANSF. There are plans to reduce its strength to 228,000 due to financial constraint. In case of disruption of foreign aid, the ANSF will disintegrate as it had disintegrated in 1992.

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Not only the US failed in its military mission, it has so far not been able to make any progress on the political front despite initiating peace talks with Taliban in 2010/11. Some light was seen at the end of the dark tunnel in 2012 when the US and Taliban agreed to exchange five Taliban prisoners detained in Guantanamo Bay since December 2001 in exchange of Sgt Bowe Bergdahl held in Taliban captivity since June 2009 and allowing the Taliban to open a political office in Doha. The US administration messed up the deal because of Karzai’s unfounded reservations and Pentagon laying down undesirable conditions for the swap over. The deal was almost clinched in June 2013, but Karzai once again torpedoed it on flimsy grounds. This act coupled with his refusal to sign BSA placed him in bad books of Washington.

Well knowing that orderly transition is not possible without taking the Taliban on board, nor will it be possible to keep Afghanistan peaceful after the drawdown of foreign troops, the US with the help of Qatar secretly implemented the prisoner swap deal on June 1, 2014 without taking Karzai into confidence. The five detainees who were high officials in Mullah Omar led regime from 1996 to 2001 have been allowed to stay in Doha for one year under travel restrictions.

Both the US and Taliban expressed their gratitude to the Emir of Qatar in facilitating the prisoner swap. Mullah Omar termed the event as a ‘big victory’. The US too judged the occurrence as a big breakthrough. Jubilant ISAF Commander Gen Joseph Dunford and Defence Secretary Chuck Hegel stated in excitement that it might lead to recommencement of peace talks with Taliban stalled since June 2013. Republican members of US Congress however cast a shadow on their elation by expressing reservations over the deal which in their view favored the Taliban. Many among the military are dubbing Sgt Bowe a deserter who had left his post on his volition.

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The swap angered Karzai the most and his typical crib was that he was kept in the dark. He termed the secret deal a setback to peace talks and expressed his fears that more deals could be brokered behind his back, not realizing that he is a lame duck and his era is over. Apart from failing to convince the Taliban to hold negotiations and arrive at a political settlement, the recently held presidential election which was boycotted by the Taliban, has run into serious crisis after the front-runner candidate Dr. Abdullah Abdullah who had led by 14% votes against his rival Ashraf Ghani in the first round of election held in April, has raised allegations of serious fraud in the vote count after the June 14 run-off election, which has placed Ghani in number one position. He has threatened to withdraw from the presidential race. The dispute has thrown the country’s first democratic transfer into jeopardy, but must have pleased the Taliban. Karzai has appealed to the UN to help solve the crisis. Left with no cards to play, the US will have to bank upon others to resolve the crisis.