President Barack Obama was expected to announce on Thursday that the United States would keep some 5,500 soldiers in Afghanistan into 2017, slowing the troop withdrawal in the face of a resurgent Taliban.
9,800 American troops are now stationed in the South Asian country, down from the 100,000 that were fighting there as recently as 2010. Read more
American president Barack Obama called it an historic moment and commanders running the war referred to it as the final step on the road to Afghanistan’s full independence.
On Wednesday, the thirteen-year operation that the United States called Operation Enduring Freedom passed into history, replaced with a mission that consists purely of advising and assisting Afghan security forces and launching occasional counterterrorism raids on Al Qaeda or Taliban targets.
“Today’s ceremony in Kabul marks a milestone for our country,” President Obama wrote in a statement.
For more than thirteen years, ever since nearly 3,000 innocent lives were taken from us on 9/11, our nation has been at war in Afghanistan. Now, thanks to the extraordinary sacrifices of our men and women in uniform, our combat mission in Afghanistan is ending, and the longest war in American history is coming to a responsible conclusion.
Yet while the politicians in Washington are celebrating that the termination of combat operations, the Afghan and Western soldiers who remain will still be heavily engaged through 2015.
Seen from America, the war may be over. But it really isn’t. The Taliban continue to push into their traditional stronghold in the south and the Afghan security forces continue to suffer a casualty rate one top American commander described as “not sustainable in the long term.”
Therein lies the problem for Obama and his successor. By virtue of the Taliban’s tenacity and the existence of a strategic partnership agreement with the government in Kabul, America will remain in the middle of the action for at least another decade.
All is not well in Afghanistan, even if the foreign troops have determined that the environment is safe enough to scale back.
The Afghans, particularly the police, have born the brunt of the fighting and experienced an increase in armed battles with insurgents who are prepared to roll into the very areas that were cleared by Afghan and Western troops only three or four years ago.
The United Nations mission in Afghanistan has documented (PDF) a 19 percent increase in civilian casualties compared to 2013. Afghan officials say approximately 5,000 members of the army and police have been killed in action throughout last year, making it one of the deadliest in the entire war.
The numbers could get worse now that foreign troops are no longer fighting on the frontlines and American assets and enablers such as air support, drones and medivac are preparing to fly back to Kuwait for another engagement in Iraq.
Attrition within the Afghan army makes the situation worse. According to a quarterly report (PDF) from the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, more than 36,000 personnel were dropped from the force between August 2013 to September 2014.
Attrition, retention, funding, retaining control over areas in remote regions and the proliferation of poppy cultivation in the southern and western provinces have all been incredible hinderances to the Afghan government’s ability to hold a monopoly on violence. The presence of 12,000 NATO trainers in 2015, half of whom are due to withdraw the following year, may give the Afghan forces a psychological boost, in addition to a crucial training component for an army that continues to battle an insurgency conducting increasingly bold attacks. The American combat mission is over but combat will occur throughout 2015 and probably even after all American troops have left the country in another two years.
Repeating Vietnam: The Withdrawal from Afghanistan
As helicopters and planes lifted the last American and British forces out of Afghanistan’s Helmand Province on Monday, the Reuters news agency cited one Marine captain of mixed Vietnamese descent saying the scene reminded him of the fall of Saigon, “of people running to the helicopters — just this mad dash to the aircraft.”
The soldier recognized that unlike the Americans and South Vietnamese who were evacuated from the republic’s capital in 1975 before it fell to the communists, “We’re not refugees or anything.” But the parallels don’t end there.
As in 1973, when the United States signed the Paris Peace Accords that ended their involvement in the Vietnam War, the vast majority of Americans is simply tired of the conflict in Afghanistan. Irrespective of whether the war’s aims have been achieved or not, America wants out. Whatever political will remained to see the war through disappeared when Democrat Barack Obama was elected president in 2008 on an anti-war platform.
To maintain some semblance of American credibility, Obama couldn’t simply order his troops to pack up and leave. A “peace with honor” had to be achieved. The North Vietnamese, at least, gave Richard Nixon a commitment to stop fighting, even if they later broke it and conquered South Vietnam anyway. The Taliban wouldn’t even give Obama that much. Both realized they had only to wait out the Americans.
Just as the United States promised to come again to South Vietnam’s aid in case the North Vietnamese resumed the war and didn’t, a residual force is left behind in Afghanistan to train and advice local forces that won’t be able to stop the Taliban from taking over the country again.
As was the case in South Vietnam, the liberated Afghanistan is likely to succumb to barbarity and oppression. If it does, it could destabilize the whole region.
India and Pakistan are already picking sides. The former will cling to its alliance with the civilian government in Kabul as long as possible, if only to keep the Pakistanis preoccupied. The military and intelligence services in Islamabad, by contrast, are revisiting their friendship with the Islamists whom they see as a weapon against their nemesis India, setting the stage for a proxy war.
Iran’s sense of insecurity will be heightened if Sunni fanatics return to power in Kabul, possibly aggravating its cold war with Sunni Arab powers in the Middle East. Neighboring Central Asian republics, coping with ethnic divisions and Islamic terrorism of their own, would be further destabilized — which could draw in great powers China and Russia which both have strong economic and political interests there.
A critical mistake the United States and NATO allies made was not involving these interested powers in a comprehensive settlement of the Afghanistan question. Rather, after smoking out the terrorists who plotted the September 11, 2001 attacks on their homeland, the Americans set out to do “nation building” in a place where there wasn’t much of a nation to begin with virtually on their own.
For years, Washington officialdom then neglected the war in favor of an even more disastrous military expedition in Iraq. Throughout, too often, every Afghan who opposed the occupation was considered an insurgent or worse. As in Vietnam, where every resistance fighter was considered a communist and therefore part of an international conspiracy against the free world, Americans had great difficulty distinguishing between global jihadists who actually menaced them and the sort of Taliban fighters who just wanted to stop foreigners bombing their towns.
Only in the last few years were negotiations with the Taliban attempted: a despicable lot, for sure, but still the most powerful Pashtun group in the country, representing its largest ethnic group. But this happened while withdrawals were already being announced very publicly. Why should the Taliban, at that point, have negotiated with an enemy that was planning to leave anyway?
Just as the North Vietnamese refused to negotiate seriously until Nixon escalated the bombing campaign against their country, so the Taliban rejected reconciliation when they had nothing to lose. They calculated — probably rightly — that they will be able to get far more on their own once the Americans withdraw than they could get from negotiations.
This all leaves the United States with little choice but to pull out. Initially unprepared for nation building in Afghanistan and later distracted in Iraq, America missed its chance to fundamentally change the first country for the better. As a democracy, it cannot very well make a renewed effort now that most Americans no longer want the war.
It remains up to those Afghans who picked America’s side — mostly Tajiks and Uzbeks and many of the country’s women who were brutally suppressed under the Taliban — to save themselves. If they fail, it doesn’t seem likely helicopters will fly in to evacuate them.
Afghanistan’s new president, Ashraf Ghani, has managed to be more productive in one day than his predecessor, Hamid Karzai, was for months. After nearly a year of stalling by Karzai’s administration over concerns about excessive civilian casualties, Afghanistan and the United States finally ratified a Bilateral Security Agreement on Tuesday — a document that took Afghan and American negotiators a year to draft and one that was the subject of so much confusion and frustration for the Obama Administration this year.
Rather than signing the agreement, Karzai had pledged to leave the task to his successor. So when Ghani and his challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, formed a unity government after a disputed presidential election this summer, the new administration in Kabul signed the security document on its first official day of business.
A lengthy accord riddled with diplomatic language, the agreement allows the United States to keep close to 10,000 troops in Afghanistan for the explicit purpose of advising and training the Afghan military and pursuing what remains of Al Qaeda’s leadership in the country. The Americans will have access to nine bases spread across Afghanistan in order to ensure that advising and training activities are as widely distributed as possible. The United States will have an obligation “to seek funds on a yearly basis to support the training, equipping, advising and sustaining of” the Afghan army and national police and American troops will have full immunity from prosecution in Afghan courts. If Afghan authorities detain an American for whatever reason, the Afghan government must hand that soldier over to his own government.
For the Obama Administration, the ratification is both a political achievement and an assurance to its critics that America will finish what it started thirteen years ago. With Iraq’s security in absolute chaos only three years after Western armies pulled out, the security agreement with Afghanistan will provide the United States with the tools and resources that are needed to prevent a similar cataclysmic outcome from occurring there.
Although long-term arrangements have now been made for American forces, it will ultimately be up to the Afghan army and police to continue taking charge of their own security. Far from being in a frontline combat role, American personnel who remain in Afghanistan after this year will serve as a force multiplier — not a force replacement — for the Afghan troops. The new government of Ashraf Ghani will be severely tested by the Taliban insurgency which continues to chip away at central government control in the east and south and remains altogether a formidable force in the remote provinces along the border with Pakistan.
Given the frenetic pace of casualties the Afghan army has endured over the past year, the new government in Kabul will need all the help it can get from the United States and NATO allies to hold the Taliban at bay and prevent the insurgency from encroaching on the country’s major cities. The Bilateral Security Agreement is the blueprint for how that assistance will be given.
Preliminary results released on Monday from Afghanistan’s presidential election seemed to give credence to candidate Abdullah Abdullah’s claim that voter fraud had been committed to favor his rival, Ashraf Ghani.
Abdullah and Ghani emerged as the frontrunners from a first voting round in April. According to Afghanistan’s election commission, the former got 3.5 million votes in the second round last month against 4.5 million for Ghani.
The chairman of the commission cautioned that the results were preliminary and admitted that votes had been rigged. “We cannot ignore the technical problems and fraud during the election process,” said Ahmad Yousuf Nuristani. “Some governors and government officials were involved in fraud.”
Final results are due to be announced in two weeks’ time.
Abdullah’s campaign nevertheless immediately rejected the tally as invalid. A spokesman said, “We don’t accept the results which were announced today and we consider this as a coup against people’s votes.”
Abdullah, who previously challenged outgoing president Hamid Karzai in the 2009 election, had insisted the results should be delayed until all problematic polling stations were audited.
According to the preliminary results, two million more Afghans turned out to vote in the runoff than did in the first round — which seems unlikely, especially given the country’s ethnic composition and traditionally low turnout among Pashtuns, the largest ethnic group.
Ghani, a former finance minister and World Bank economist, is Pashtun. His vice presidential candidate, Abdul Rashid Dostum, is a former Uzbek warlord. The two carried the country’s majority Pashto and Uzbek provinces.
Abdullah, of mixed Pashtun and Tajik descent, draws most of his support from the north which is home to a variety of smaller ethnicities and tribes. The stronghold of the Northern Alliance that resisted Taliban rule, the north largely resents the Pashtuns for supporting the radical Islamists until they were toppled in a Western invasion in 2001.
India, Russia Ally Against Pakistan by Providing Arms to Afghanistan
When NATO withdraws from Afghanistan later this year, India and Russia may well fill the security vacuum to prevent the Taliban from resurging, aligning them both against neighboring Pakistan.
India has reportedly agreed to pay Russia to deliver small arms, such as light artillery and mortars, to Afghanistan. The transfer could eventually include heavy artillery, tanks and possibly attack helicopters.
India’s foreign minister, Salman Khurshid, said during a visit to Afghanistan in February, “We are giving them helicopters and we will be supplying them very soon.”
A Foreign Ministry official told the Reuters news agency that India won’t commit troops on the ground nor give Afghanistan all the military equipment it has asked for — “for all sorts of reasons, including the lack of surplus stocks.”
“Involving a third party is the next best option,” the source said, referring to Russia. Indian officials apparently visited Moscow in February to firm up the deal.
Having contributed close to $2 billion in aid over the past decade, India is the fifth largest donor nation to Afghanistan. But it doesn’t share a border with the country, hampering its aid efforts. It cannot rely on its rival Pakistan to reach Afghanistan. That country is more inclined to strike deals with Islamist insurgents in its unruly frontier region whom it sees as a wedge against India. India’s expanded support for the civilian government in Kabul could therefore set the stage for a proxy war between the two once the Americans and their allies have pulled out next year.
India has depended on Iran to facilitate its trade with Afghanistan but that country’s port facilities at Chabahar may not be able support larger volumes of shipments. India did finance the construction of a road from Chabahar to Delaram, a town in the west of Afghanistan that is situated on its Ring Road, to transport goods into the country.
Iran’s troubled relations with the West are also an impediment if India wants to simultaneously expand its partnership with the United States in order to balance against a rising China. Hence the deal with Russia. Although, given the deterioration in American-Russian relations since the latter invaded and annexed Ukraine’s Crimea in March, it might not have chosen a far more respectable partner.
India, Iran and Russia previously worked together to support the Northern Alliance, made up mostly of ethnic Tajiks, against the Taliban before the Americans invaded in 2001.
During the Afghan civil war, Pakistan’s intelligence services backed the Taliban which they saw as the most viable political movement among the country’s majority Pashtun population and therefore the best ally to give them “strategic depth” in Afghanistan in the event of an Indian attack. If India doubled down on its commitment to the government in Kabul, Pakistan might face the prospect of a war on two fronts and is likely to respond by ramping up support for whichever faction opposes it.