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America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan: will it bring peace, or open Pandora’s box?

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America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan: will it bring peace, or open Pandora’s box?


2014 should be the year when the war in Afghanistan ends. Remember how it all began? The opening salvo, on that autumn Sunday, 7 October 2001, less than a month after the 11 September attacks? In his “Address to the Nation”, the then-US President George W. Bush cast the dice: “On my orders the United States military has begun strikes against al-Qaeda terrorist training camps and military installations of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. These carefully targeted actions are designed to disrupt the use of Afghanistan as a terrorist base of operations, and to attack the military capability of the Taliban regime. (…) Given the nature and reach of our enemies, we will win this conflict by the patient accumulation of successes, by meeting a series of challenges with determination and will and purpose.” Thus was the launch of what was to become America’s longest overseas combat commitment in history.

In October 2001, the world was still reeling from the shock of the ruthless al-Qaeda-claimed attacks that turned the World Trade Centre twin towers into ashes, killing almost 3,000 innocent people. Attacked on its soil, in the very heart of the civilisation it had built, America thought it had the right to strike back. But when reading the last phrase of the quote above, one cannot but ask oneself whether the administration of President George W. Bush was truly aware of the “nature and reach” of its enemies. It seems nobody in the President’s entourage had ever stumbled across the premonitory words, dating back nearly 120 years ago, of a 23-year old British cavalry officer turned reporter.

Winston Churchill was the officer’s name and in his 1897 dispatches sent to “The Daily Telegraph” from the Swat Valley – the tribal areas that comprise today’s border between Afghanistan and Pakistan – he was describing the futility of warfare in the region: “Financially it is ruinous. Morally it is wicked. Militarily it is an open question, and politically it is a blunder.” Back then, the British Empire fought rebellious Pashtun tribesmen at the northwest frontier of what was then British India. Attached as a journalist – embedded, as we would say today – to the Malakand Field Force in the Swat Valley, young Churchill wrote vividly about the brutal campaign, the land and the warlike nature of its tribes, “where every man is a soldier”:

“Except at the times of sowing and of harvest, a continual state of feud and strife prevails throughout the land. Tribe wars with tribe. The people of one valley fight with those of the next. To the quarrels of communities are added the combats of individuals. Khan assails khan, each supported by his retainers. Every tribesman has a blood feud with his neighbour. Every man’s hand is against the other, and all against the stranger.”

With the insight of an ethnologist, Churchill grasped the place of religion in the lives of these tribes and the “tyranny of a numerous priesthood – “Mullahs,” “Sahibzadas,” “Akhundzadas,” “Fakirs,” – and a host of wandering Talib-ul-ilms, who correspond with the theological students in Turkey, and live free at the expense of the people.”
Militarily speaking, Churchill’s prediction stood the test of time. The war in Afghanistan is one without victory or defeat. Those interested in the evolution of the conflict will find a comprehensive reminder of its timeline by clicking here.

Al-Qaeda has not been completely eliminated, nor the Taliban completely vanquished. Bin Laden’s killing was a serious blow that weakened the terrorist network that he inspired, spoke to with authority, and provided with money and organisational advice. But take a look, in 2013, at the tumultuous Arab World – Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. Take another look at Somalia and northern Africa. With a handful of regimes teetering from the Arab Spring, you’ll see al-Qaeda pushing into the vacuum and riding a resurgent wave as its affiliates engage in a violent campaign of attacks across the Middle East and North Africa.

What about the Taliban? The hardline Islamist movement is no longer in power in Kabul, but it remains dominant in the country’s east and south, as well as in neighbouring North Waziristan in Pakistan. In March 2013, military analysts from the Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre (DCDC), which is part of the UK Ministry of Defence, confirmed Churchill’s insight: NATO’s campaign was an unwinnable war. A DCDC internal report on Afghanistan, obtained by the British media via the Freedom of Information Act, examines the “extraordinary number of similar factors that surround both the Soviet and NATO campaigns in Afghanistan”.

The report states that, like the Soviet Union (in its 1979-1989 campaign in Afghanistan, against the multi-national insurgent groups of Mujahideen –, NATO abandoned its central aim – to eliminate the Taliban insurgents’ safe havens – once it realised that the war was militarily unwinnable. It continues: “Both interventions have been portrayed as foreign invasions attempting to support a corrupt and unpopular central government against a local insurgent movement which has popular support, strong religious motivation and safe havens abroad”. And both were judged as failed interventions by world opinion.

The DCDC report states that the Soviet withdrawal plan was handicapped by a publicly announced timetable and that, more than two decades later, NATO made the same mistake. The study is pessimistic about the survival of the Afghan government after combat troops withdraw and reminds us that Afghanistan has a very weak economic base which will need outside financial support for many years.

The internal assessment of the British Ministry of Defence mirrored another evaluation, prepared by the UK-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). In its annual Military Balance report released in March 2013, the think tank forecast that the Afghan Taliban insurgency would not be eliminated by the end of 2014. “The hope is that it can be reduced to such a level that it no longer poses an existential threat to the state and can be contained by Afghan security forces,” the IISS said, predicting that in 2015 the country would be “a patchwork of insurgent activity”.

But alea jancta est, again! US President Obama cast a new pair of dice in February 2013. By the end of 2014, said Obama, “our war in Afghanistan will be over”, adding that “beyond 2014, America’s commitment to a unified and sovereign Afghanistan will endure, but the nature of our commitment will change.”

Two developments will greatly influence future evolutions in Afghanistan. The first is the management of the transition to Afghan control, which depends on an orderly withdrawal of American and NATO forces by 2014. The second is the election of a new Afghan president, to be held in April 2014. If successful, this process would permit the United States and its NATO allies to claim at least one victory in this war: handing over to a legitimate government a country torn by 30 years of continuous war. Or, to be more precise, handing over those parts of the country that are not controlled by the Taliban. Afghanistan would not have been transformed into something resembling a Western-style nation-state. But the transformation would be remarkable, if we remember that no nationally-agreed-upon government had existed in Afghanistan since 1979.

Alas, in these final weeks of 2013, the prospects for a smooth retreat of the American-led NATO forces seem rather grim. With fingers pointed, US officials and Afghan President Hamid Karzai blame each other for brinkmanship – a practice consisting of manoeuvring a dangerous situation to the limits of tolerance, in order to secure the greatest advantage, especially by creating diplomatic crises. The issue at stake is the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) a deal that will shape foreign military presence in Afghanistan beyond 2014.

The security agreement would allow for the presence of between 10,000 and 15,000 US and NATO troops at nine locations around Afghanistan. It includes a provision allowing military raids on Afghan homes in exceptional circumstances – when an American life is directly under threat. A particularly sensitive issue among Afghans. But while it took well over a year for the US and Afghanistan to hammer out the BSA, approved at the end of November 2013 by a loya jirga, the assembly of Afghan tribal elders, president Karzai has vowed not to sign it, if Washington carries on raiding Afghan homes and launching drone strikes.

And while he wants the United States not to meddle in the Afghan elections in April 2014 – for which he is not eligible, due to term limits – Karzai asks for Washington’s help in starting an open and public peace process with the Taliban, instead of carrying on its secret diplomacy with the Islamic fundamentalist movement. In Karzai’s view, the Obama administration undermined him when it allowed Taliban leaders to establish a temporary office in Doha, Qatar, in June 2013, during an unsuccessful effort by the United States to broker peace talks between the Taliban and the Karzai government. The Afghan President also accuses the Obama administration of having interfered in the country’s 2009 elections, which he called an attempt to weaken the Afghan government.

If Karzai doesn’t sign the deal, which also includes an estimated aid package of 3 to 4.5 billion euros in annual US and coalition funding for the Afghan military, Washington says it will have to withdraw its entire military force by the end of 2014. Other NATO nations could follow suit, leaving Afghan forces to fight the Taliban insurgency on their own. The complete withdrawal, called the “zero option”, would be similar to the pull-out of US troops from Iraq two years ago. Violence in Iraq is now at its highest level in at least five years, and more than 8,000 people have been killed this year, according to the United Nations.

On its website, the US State Department assesses positively the effectiveness of the international effort in Afghanistan. “Of the 20 major post-Cold war interventions conducted by the United States, United Nations, and others, Afghanistan had the greatest improvements in the UN’s Human Development Index, was third among twenty improvements in government effectiveness as measured by the World Bank, and was second out of these 20 in growth of per capita income. Afghanistan’s progress should be compared with that of other countries that have faced similar levels of conflict.”

As for us, we will patiently wait to see if 2014 brings an end to the three decades of continuous war that have so indelibly scarred the lives of the Afghans.

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