04.02.2014 Author: Salman Rafi Sheikh

The US and the Future of Afghanistan: Peace or no Peace?

Afghanistan-US-warThe political discourse on Afghanistan’s future is somehow not merely about how many military personnel the US would finally decide to place in Afghanistan. It is equally about the purpose(s) they are deployed to attain. In other words, numbers, in this case, don’t matter so much as the underlying objectives do. However, the attainment of the objectives is also very much interlinked with the question and nature of the security agreement which the US has now ‘conveniently’ signed with the government of Afghanistan after a lot of ‘bargaining’ and give and take. It is surely a step towards withdrawal; however, it has delineated the ‘kind’ f withdrawal the US is contemplating. But, this agreement has, at the same time, sowed seeds of continued fighting in Afghanistan even beyond 2014 because the US has signed with the puppet government of Afghanistan, and that the Taliban have rejected it outright. That is where the roots of the current problems have to be located in order for discerning the possible trajectory Afghanistan would take in the near future. 

The debate leading to the currently signed agreement remained focused on whether it would be a ‘negotiated’ partial withdrawal, or a complete withdrawal. In the case of partial withdrawal, the US wanted to maintain its politico-strategic influence in Afghanistan not only through long term retention of its military bases by its security managementof the post-withdrawal, but also through providing training assistancefor organizing operation-worthy Afghan military and police, and also through acquiring legal immunity for its military personnel from the laws of Afghanistan. In return of the acceptance of these demands, the US promised to arrange an annual aid of about 4 billion US Dollars for Afghanistan. The US also indicated that if these terms for partial withdrawal were not accepted by Afghanistan authorities, it would go for a ‘zero option’, i.e., a complete withdrawal and leaving the country to the chaos of infighting. And still worse now, the latest US’ politico-diplomatic maneuverings clearly indicate its designs to go for a ‘dictated’ partial withdrawal which is still bound to cause much more human sufferings to the people of Afghanistan.

The agreement reached at now did also pass through the crucial stage of negotiations with the Taliban. Had the Taliban agreed to what the US demanded, there would have remained no problem in principle. However, it was almost a foregone conclusion that the Taliban would never agree to the scheme of the US’ possible stay in Afghanistan after 2014. In that scheme, Afghanistan Taliban were required to accept their role in the post-5 April 2014 Afghanistan government in coalition with the other groups (now forming the current Karzai & associates’ government), as also the US-Karzai strategic partnership and other agreements reached till the 5 April 2014 elections. That US’ effort with Afghanistan Taliban did not workbecause of certain demands. The non-acceptability of three of those was certainly a foregone conclusion, i.e.(a) granting immunity to the US’ military from any legal action in Afghanistan; (b) the US’ retention of the military bases and its ‘control’ on Afghanistan’s military and police in the name of organization and training; and (c) asking the Taliban to accept forming a government in partnership with the current ‘Karzai associates’, majority of whom happen to be Tajiks, who are also the main opponents of the Taliban domination in particular, and Pashtun domination in general. Accepting this agreement would have meant a political suicide for the Taliban. That the Afghans in general and the Taliban in particular would most probably never agree to the US’ demand of retaining military bases would trigger conflict becomes evident when we take into account the psyche and behaviour pattern of the people of Afghanistan. This would have appeared to them a sort of ‘surrender’ to the US even after fighting for thirteen years. It is for this reason that the US, in its ‘quest’ for retaining its hold on Afghanistan by any means, decided to bypass the Taliban and make an agreement with the so-called ‘national’ government of Afghanistan, whose authority hardly extends beyond the walls of the Presidential palace. It was, therefore, no surprise that Afghanistan Taliban confronted and rejected that deal, indicating its disastrous consequences and appealing to Afghan masses to boycott the forthcoming April 2014 elections in the country.

Although both the US and the Afghan government have refrained from making its details public, some media houses, and the persons working with the US Foreign Secretary, John Kerry, have at least divulged its broader basic framework. In general, the BSA implies Karzai government’s acceptance of the aforementioned terms of the US, with only the aspect of US troops’ legal immunity remaining unresolved. According to Fox News report published on 12 October 2013, “both sides said everything had been agreed except continuing immunity for the US military personnel from the Afghan courts”; and that, Secretary Kerry noted that if that issue was not resolved there would be no agreement.

But, it is very unlikely that the agreement would not be finalized; for, Karzai government has already sent the issue to the Loya Jirga for its approval; and that, Karzai then intends to use Jirga’s opinion for manipulating Parliament’s decision on the same issue. However, one must be mindful of the fact that the ‘mechanism’ is not something of a ‘democratic’ nature or part of democratic process, as is being projected by the Afghan government; it is a tool of manipulating and extracting a desired decision form these decision making bodies. Taking a desired decision from these two ‘national’ bodies would give the government and its consequent decisions the required constitutional legitimacy, and leave minimum room for dissent by other groups such as Taliban. In the past, such Jirgas have given respectability and legitimacy to sensitive decisions taken by the government while the hand-picked nature of the delegates pretty well ensures that ‘the people’, in consideration of the larger national interest, took the ‘right’ decision in the given matter. It is precisely for this very reason that the US and Afghan government have not made the language of the agreement public far ahead of Jirga meeting. Karzai, consequently, is engaging in smart political strategizing. By having the Jirga accept the deal, he and his associates in the government can use their influence to bring enough tribal and political support that would favor a deal with the US.

By implications, what the US is trying to accomplish is that by signing an agreement at this stage, it can present the Taliban with a sort of fate accompli. The US’ strategy is based upon the assumption that it is of prime importance for Karzai that the agreement be reached; for, he and his associates cannot hope to stay in power without the support of the US. That premise is linked with the weakness of Karzai & associates who know that, unlike the case of the post-US survival of Iraqi leadership, their political survival in Afghanistan critically depends upon the continued presence of the US’ military in the country and foreign aid. The difference between Iraq and Afghanistan is that while Iraq has oil revenues to support itself, Afghanistan has nothing, except its ‘opium’, and is also almost totally dependent on the US and other Western allies for economic sustenance. Continuation of that aid, the Obama administration is not-so-subtly telling Karzai, depends on Kabul letting the US keep its troops, under cover of legal immunity’ in Afghanistan in post-2014 scenario.

But it is highly uncertain how the Karzai led government can deal with the most probable up-coming spat of infighting, especially given the fact that the current administration is highly fragile and inefficient. Even according to certain reports published in the Western media, such as that of New York Times published in March 2012, members of the cureent administration include those people who have profited from the crony capitalism that has come to define Afghanistan’s economic order; and that, this business and political elite is defined by its corruption, and despised by most Afghans for it; and that, this pervasive graft has badly undercut the American war strategy, which hinged on building the Karzai administration into a credible alternative to the Taliban. Almost similar sort of the case is with the Afghan National Army and Police, which are not only inefficient but also have shown no sign of having developed the required capability to defend its ‘national’ government against the Taliban threat; and then, there is also the uncertainty surrounding the question of the US Congress’s approval for continued aid to Afghan national army.

The difficulties show that the currently agreed BSA is not likely to succeed. It is one among many of the efforts of the US to secure not only a face-saving exit from Afghanistan, but also retaining its influence. Starting from establishing its virtual politico-military control over Afghanistan to retaining its physical occupation, the US has now got to confine its ambitions to retaining some sort of tentacles of influence in Afghanistan. However, we must also keep in mind that the fighting strength of the Afghan Taliban has not decreased, relatively speaking, by any means. According to a NATO report, The State of Taliban, of 2012, the Taliban’s “strength, motivation, funding and tactical proficiency remains intact”, despite the fact that they have suffered heavy losses in recent years.

As such, the US has, keeping in view the ground realities of Afghanistan, only two options: either to withdraw completely or negotiate a political settlement with the Taliban directly. This would not solve the US’ problem, but this seems to be the only alternative to an outright politico-military defeat. However, the US is still bent on pursuing the hard path. In this behalf, broad outline of the US’ strategy was highlighted by Defense Secretary, Chuck Hagel, in a speech to officials and strategists at a global security forum, in which he stated in clear terms that the US should use all of its instruments of power, not just its military, to lead the world against terrorism and other threats”; and ” that strategy rests on operating with a smaller footprint, relying more on precise strikes by special operations forces and drones, training and assisting partner nations to deal with regional security challenges, and engaging in more humanitarian efforts”.

The US, it seems, would surely reduce deployment of its fighting force in consideration of the massive cuts in defense budget; however, it also equally intends to continue bullying its rival groups and countries through drone strikes, targeted air strikes and targeted military operations through special forces, in alliance with partner (managed Afghan government) in order for ‘securing’ the people of Afghanistan against terrorist threats.

Such continued application of force would ultimately result in prolonged infighting in Afghanistan even beyond 2014. That the Taliban have announced to boycott elections and have rejected BSA is quite indicative of the lava brewing in Afghanistan. As long as the US is there and continues to exert undue pressure on the people of Afghanistan and deny them the right to decide their future on their own terms, there will not be and cannot be any hope for peace and development. Any form of intervention is inimical to establishing peace and harmony, and as long as the US stays in Afghanistan, people in general, and the Taliban in particular, will keep resisting its occupation by all means at their disposal. That’s precisely what history tells us about the psyche and behaviour pattern of the people of Afghanistan.

Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs. Exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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