Afghanistan: The long retreat of US

Post 2014 There are reports that US troops will continue in the war-torn country, though in depleted number

A US soldier guards the site of a suicide attack in Wardak Province of Afghanistan, which killed several civilians and wounded dozens of others. Taliban claimed responsibility for the bombing, saying it was to avenge recent execution of Taliban  detainees at the government detention centre in Kabul. AP

The future of Afghanistan and its likely implications for India and the rest of the South Asian region will increasingly become an important issue in the coming months and years with American voters re-electing Barack Obama for a second four-year term as President early this month. Obama’s return assumes significance in view of an elaborate plan enunciated by his administration to end the US anti-terror military operations in Afghanistan by the end of 2014.

The plan raises doubts about the future of American commitment to ensure that Afghanistan will not again become an epicentre of terror and a source of terrorist activities in the region and around the world. That was the commitment the then-President George W Bush made when he announced the launch of “Operation Enduring Freedom” – the code name given for the Afghan military operations by the US and its allies – 11 years ago, on October 7, 2001.

True, al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, the prime target of the operation, whose custody the US had demanded from the Taliban rulers in Afghanistan to avert the military action, has since been eliminated. True, the Taliban, which had sheltered Laden and made common cause with him, is not ruling Afghanistan today. It is also true, there may not be many hard-boiled al-Qaeda leaders left in Afghanistan.

All these might suggest that the country has become a safer place today and not such a dangerous neighbour to the countries around it than what it was over a decade ago. However, the experiences of the American and its allied troops who have been conducting military operations against al-Qaeda and Taliban operatives since October 2001 tell a different story. These experiences, together with the last three decades of violence and military operations in Afghanistan, raise disconcerting questions about post-US troops’ “drawdown” scenarios in the country.

What are the experiences of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) – i.e., the US and its allied troops involved in anti-terror combat operations in Afghanistan? Soon after the fall of the Taliban regime in Kabul in end-2011, it had appeared that hard-line al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders and fighters had disintegrated under the pressure of relentless military offensive.

Five years later, the situation began to change significantly. It became evident that the Taliban fighters used these years to regroup themselves and come up with a new guerrilla strategy to challenge the ISAF and the US-backed government in Kabul headed by Hamid Karzai. In the first five years of this war on terror, the ISAF lost just over 500 troops, around 350 of them belonging to the US contingent. But the death toll went up five to six times these figures since 2007. As a result, many of the US’ junior partners in the war have pulled out their men as they found it difficult to sustain their presence in the country in the face of creeping demoralisation back home.

The mounting challenge from the Taliban forced Obama to induct more troops into Afghanistan in a move that was described as troops “surge.” As against an estimated 38,000 US troops deployed in the country in 2007, the Obama administration was forced to respond to the deteriorating security situation by ordering troops’ reinforcement. By mid-2012, the US strength went up to almost 1,00,000. By this time, the US discovered that a large number of Taliban and al al-Qaeda men were operating from their safe hideouts across southern Afghanistan in tribal areas of Pakistan. Pakistan’s inability/unwillingness to flush them out of their safe havens prompted the US to order aerial attacks on these hideouts, the well-publicised unmanned Drone raids.

The Taliban challenge to the US is, in fact, mainly in southern and south-eastern parts of Afghanistan, the areas which border Pakistan. Most of the casualties suffered by the US and allied troops too are in these areas – the provinces of Helmand, Khandahar, Konar, Paktia, Ghazni, Wardak, Zabol and Kabul. Over 2,000 of the 3,200 fatal casualties reported by the ISAF so far in anti-terror operations have been in these eight provinces of Afghanistan.

The extremist Taliban movement started in these parts of the country and the adjoining areas across the border in Pakistan. These areas on either side of the border in the two countries also acted as the vital base for the extremist and violent Afghan Mujahideen movement against the decade-long Soviet occupation of the country and the government in Kabul backed by the Soviets. Of course, the Mujahideen resistance against the erstwhile Soviet Union was backed to the hilt by the US, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and several other countries by way of generous funding, arming and indoctrination, using the concept of jihad.       

Notwithstanding the presence of ISAF forces, Taliban today virtually controls many areas in southern and south-eastern Afghanistan – a situation much like the one witnessed in the mid-1990s when the Mujahideen factions ruled the country from Kabul. The US, and to some extent the Hamid Karzai government in Kabul betrayed a sense of weakness two years ago when they fancied the idea of engaging “moderates” among the Taliban. The idea did not take off.

Are the Taliban just waiting for the Obama administration to drawdown the American troops by the end of 2014? There is little doubt that they are. Of course, it is far from clear what Obama administration means by the drawdown. There are indications from the US that American troops would continue to be based in the country beyond 2014, though with a depleted strength.

Obama said a year ago: “Our troops will continue coming home at a steady pace as Afghan security forces move into the lead. Our mission will change from combat to support. By 2014, the process of transition will be complete, and the Afghan people will be responsible for their own security.”

What will be the support role the US troops would play beyond 2014? How many troops will be there in the support mission? There is hardly any clarity on these questions. Further, the US ability to play such a role may be constrained by Washington’s funding constraints. 

An elaborate exercise is on to raise Afghan National Security Forces, with an initial strength of 3.5 lakh personnel - almost half of the strength devoted to military and commando wings, and the rest in national and local police service. The military and commando wings are trained and equipped to take over from the ISAF the combat role.

Already, the US forces are involving them in anti-Taliban operations. Though rigorous training is imparted to them, there are doubts about their integrity and loyalty.
In Afghanistan, notorious ethnic, tribal and factional loyalties have already been a problem for rulers in Kabul. Within three years of the Soviet troops’ withdrawal from the country, the then Najibullah government in Kabul collapsed. It collapsed because the armed force raised by the pro-Soviet communist rulers, though large and well-trained, disintegrated on ethnic, tribal and factional lines. A large number of them – from being communists, turned to be warriors for Mujahideen factional leaders, and later for the Taliban. Which was why, the Najibullah government could not survive for long after the Soviets left, and which was also why the Mujahideen government in Kabul fell soon after the Americans lost interest in the country and abandoned the Mujahideens soon after the Najibullah government’s collapse.

Fraught with danger

The Taliban’s success in the mid-1990s was as much because of the backing it enjoyed from Pakistan as was its overwhelming reliance on the country’s largest ethnic group – the Pashtun. These two factors of strength are relevant for the Taliban even today. But it is not so in the case of the armed forces being raised in the country with the US backing. Serious questions remain about the effectiveness of the new armed force, what with the men constituting this force prone to waver on ethnic, tribal and factional lines. It may be too much to expect such a susceptible force to do what US combatants couldn’t do effectively – to win the war against the Taliban.

The scenario is not good for Karzai, whose writ doesn’t run beyond Kabul even today. If it is not the Obama administration’s intention to abandon Afghanistan and the Karzai government, it will find it difficult to meet its 2014 drawdown target. At least, its post-2014 “support mission” cannot rule out combat role for whatever number of US troops are stationed in the country. Going by the prevailing situation, a more likely alternative might well be a return of the Taliban, after a period of heightening lawlessness in the country – both the scenarios are fraught with dangers for all the countries around Afghanistan.  

Related stories

The cost for staying on;  price for leaving
Working with an  emerging ‘New Afghanistan’

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