The cost for staying on; price for leaving

''It is difficult to be optimistic about Afghanistan's future and the effects this will have on its neighbours.''

Afghan deminers walk sniffer dogs on the outskirts of Kabul as roadside bombs used by the Taliban remain one of the biggest killers of civilians.

It is a given fact that the US wants to leave Afghanistan in a substantial manner. This would be President Obama’s legacy about a war that he concluded. The announcement that the date of departure would be 2011, later changed to 2014, was an indication for the Taliban and its supporters, Pakistan, that this was going to be a war they would eventually win. All they had to do was to hang in there till the US left. The announcement had also left those involved in the task of keeping Afghanistan secure with considerable misgivings about the future.

The question is what will it cost Afghanistan to be on its own, both in terms of financial dependence, political stability, military freedom and internal security. Can it sustain itself in all these aspects. Secondly, what will be the price we - the free world - have to pay for this event which will inevitably be described as victory by some and defeat by others.
All four issues of internal security, political and military independence and economic development are interlinked, especially in Afghanistan as it has remained dependent on external sources in all aspects.

One of the foremost requirements for any government in Kabul post-2014 is going to be its ability to ensure internal peace and cohesion, maintenance of law and order and safe borders. The most important aspect of this will be the efficacy and reach of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) comprising the Afghan National Army (ANA) and the Afghan National Police (ANP). It is not just the numerical strength and the quality of manpower and equipment that will determine the ability of the ANSF to function effectively. It will be the financial resources to maintain these forces and their training. The second issue will be the attitude of the Pakistan government, especially in areas across Paktika, Paktia and Khost provinces that border the FATA region where the Haqqani Network has been most effective. 

Numerically, the ANSF was said to be around 3,52,000 strong by October 2012 of which the ANA numbered 1,95,000 and the ANP 1,57,000. Numbers look impressive but the more important issue is how much and who will pay for these forces. The Chicago Summit of May 2012 had envisaged a provision of US $4.1 billion for a force of 2,28,500. If one takes into account that the essential budget of the Afghan government is barely US $2.75 billion, there is obviously a huge resource crunch.

Critics sceptic

There is another doubt and that relates to the discipline and training. Although NATO sources portray the ANSF has having attained acceptable standards of performance, other critics doubt this claim. Rapid expansion of the force has meant a decline in the standards of training and yardsticks for recruitment. In addition, recruitment has also been on a regional and ethnic pattern and there have been reports of what is now called ‘green over blue attacks’ where Afghan soldiers and policemen have attacked members of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). The state of the ANP is even worse as it is considered to be indisciplined and corrupt and faces infiltration and desertions.   
The political scene does not give much comfort either. The handover of Afghanistan to the Afghans in 2014 will be at a time when Presidential elections would be due. One of the problems has been that there has been inadequate effort to help build political institutions in the short time available where strong regional ethnic interests dominate. Afghanistan just does not have state institutions, a developed civil society and a civil service, that will ensure legitimacy of the government once fresh elections are held.
US attempts to talk to the Taliban representatives from a position of strength have mostly been prevented by Pakistan’s recalcitrance and duplicity. Back home in America, and Europe there is declining interest and increasing exhaustion about Afghanistan, which means there is declining financial commitment to the country. The Tokyo summit of July 2012 committed only US $16 billion up to 2016, whereas Afghanistan needs about US $10 billion a year for ten years from 2014.

India’s role

Almost inevitably, Afghanistan will see a greater Indian involvement in developmental fields and skills training (including the ANSF) in the years ahead. A greater Chinese presence is already visible and Pakistan may hitch itself more closely to China in furthering its interests in Afghanistan. Iran would remain an interested player. But then there is nothing clear and in black and white in Afghanistan. Should things go wrong in Kabul and political fortunes swing, one could see a reversal to the ethnic and regional warlord days and chaos. This in turn could mean a strengthening of the Taliban hold in the Pushtun belt.

(The writer, former chief of India’s external intelligence service, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), is Vice President of the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi, an independent public policy think tank.)

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