WASHINGTON, DC - Monday, June 11, 2012 -
The U.S. and Afghanistan continue to refine their relationship while managing the deepening fears of abandonment in Kabul and unease in Washington about being entrapped in an unwinnable war. The peace talks with the Taliban have stalled, with the parties treating the negotiations as an extension of their conflict through verbal means.
The U.S. and its NATO allies and partners now need to fulfill their commitments to support the Afghan government while also sustaining pressure on Kabul and its neighbors to make more progress in addressing the underlying socioeconomic, political, and other drivers of the insurgency.
BACKGROUND: On May 2, 2012, the U.S. and Afghanistan signed a new Strategic Partnership Agreement after months of negotiations. In the accord, the U.S. pledged social and economic development, security assistance, and regional cooperation for 10 years beyond the planned 2014 withdrawal date for all U.S. combat troops.
The U.S., by far the largest troop contributor to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, withdrew 10,000 troops in 2011 and aims to remove 23,000 this year. On May 26, the Afghan Parliament overwhelmingly ratified the strategic partnership agreement, which is now under review in the Afghan Senate, where little opposition is expected.
At the May 20-21 NATO summit in Chicago, the NATO governments and other countries contributing troops to ISAF committed to transferring the leading combat role in all provinces from ISAF to the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) during the next two years. The agreement allows the U.S. to keep troops in Afghanistan beyond 2014 and have access to Afghan military facilities, though not permanent U.S. military bases on Afghan territory.
In return, the Afghan government commits to strengthening accountability, transparency, rule of law, and the human rights of all Afghans, regardless of gender.
The Strategic Partnership Agreement yields advantages to both parties. It will reassure the Afghan government of Hamid Karzai and its successors, as well as regional allies, that the U.S. will not soon abandon them. For the same reason, it provides leverage with the Afghan Taliban, Iran, and Pakistan by reducing their expectations that they can simply wait a few years until all foreign forces leave Afghanistan.
The Taliban has long sought to convey the message to Afghans that they should not support ISAF since, while all Western troops will soon depart, the Taliban movement plans to stay forever. In addition, some members of the divided Pakistani security services argue that they need to maintain good ties with the Afghan Taliban since they will eventually return to power.
Hoping to reduce U.S. influence in Kabul, Iranian representatives unsuccessfully lobbied the Afghan parliament to reject the deal and Iranian security forces harassed Afghan diplomats following its signing.
Some metrics confirm U.S. claims that measurable progress is occurring in Afghanistan. More territory is under government control, many Taliban leaders have been captured or killed, and the Afghan military has assumed the lead role in more provinces.
According to the Pentagon, last year saw a 9 percent reduction in insurgent attacks on ISAF compared with 2010. ISAF casualties also decreased during that period. ISAF is ahead of schedule in their program for expanding the size of the Afghan security forces to 352,000, which could occur before the scheduled October 2012 date.
IMPLICATIONS: Yet, the major U.S. intelligence agencies warned earlier this year that, while some progress had been achieved against the Taliban, it was essentially “fragile and reversible.” A classified National Intelligence Estimate issued in December 2011 was described in congressional hearings as a warning of “dire” outcomes and protracted “stalemate” unless the ANSF made greater progress.
Since then, the ISAF mission has suffered additional setbacks, including the burning of Qurans inside Bagram Air Base, the massacre of 17 Afghan civilians by one maverick U.S. soldier, and the circulation of photographs of U.S. forces defiling the bodies of dead Taliban men. These developments contributed to a surge of incidents in which Afghan soldiers turned their weapons on U.S. or other NATO forces, further undermining mutual trust.
The U.S. and NATO face major problems in their efforts to transition the war effort to Afghan government leadership. Its limited capacity raises doubts whether Afghan authorities can lead the crucial night raids against the insurgents or manage Taliban detention facilities properly.
The ANSF and other Afghan institutions suffer from pervasive corruption and ethnic tensions. Independent centers of power are reemerging under powerful warlords with local militias. They make deals with both sides while protecting their core economic interests, which often include narcotics trafficking.
Any deterioration in security due to the foreign troop reductions will have a doubly negative impact by inducing Afghan and foreign aid workers to leave the field and by requiring the increased use of air power, especially along the Afghan-Pakistan border, which will probably generate numerous civilian casualties.
Blame will fall on ISAF even though the UN and other observers calculate that Taliban actions have caused the overwhelming number of civilian fatalities. For example, the Taliban is thought to have been responsible for three-quarters of the 3,021 civilians killed in 2011.
The more limited U.S. goals for Afghanistan laid out in President Barack Obama’s May 1 speech from Kabul and by other U.S. officials elsewhere – which prioritize preventing the reemergence of al-Qaeda safe havens in Afghanistan – is bound to disappoint Afghan liberals but might make it easier to reach a peace agreement with the Taliban while NATO can still muster considerable punch on the battlefield.
The peace talks are unavoidable since NATO and its Afghan allies acknowledge they cannot plausibly hope to kill or capture all Taliban insurgents. Unfortunately, the Taliban have suspended all direct negotiations with Western governments and seem content to try to run down the clock and win a war of attrition.
This strategy is not unreasonable. Support for the Afghan War among Western publics is low and falling. After almost a decade of fighting, Western leaders are eager to reduce their military, financial, and other costly support for the Kabul government. Relations between Obama and Karzai remain strained despite the fact that the new U.S. civilian-military team, headed by U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker and ISAF commander Marine Lt. Gen. John R. Allen, has adopted a more conciliatory tone toward the Afghan leader in public.
Taliban fighters can still make major shows of force in Kabul and other Afghan cities. They managed to deflate the impact of Obama’s May 1 visit by conducting multiple bombings only a few hours after the president arrived.
The Chicago summit underscored NATO’s worsening problems with Pakistan. The government in Islamabad is unable or unwilling to suppress the Taliban sanctuaries in northwest Pakistan, leading the U.S. administration to defy Pakistani demands to cease drone strikes against extremist targets operating in the region.
Influential Pakistanis continue to see the Afghan Taliban as a valuable means for exerting influence on the Afghan endgame. Islamabad has also kept the Afghan-Pakistan border closed to NATO supply convoys for the past six months, since an accidental November 2011 airstrike killed 24 Pakistani paramilitary forces along the border.
CONCLUSIONS: Perhaps the best solution would be for the U.S. and its ISAF partners to pay the outrageous transit fees that Pakistan demands to resume the deliveries and then subtract that amount from the assistance they provide Islamabad. The decision by Central Asian leaders to decline their invitations to attend the Chicago summit, while sending lower-level delegations, should remind NATO of its need to engage more deeply with Afghanistan’s anxious and frustrated neighbors, many of which complain about feeling neglected by Washington and Brussels.
Given the impending NATO military withdrawal, Washington and its allies should redouble their pressure on Russia and China to provide more military and economic aid to Kabul.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Dr. Richard Weitz is a Senior Fellow and Associate Director of the Center for Future Security Strategies at the Hudson Institute.
(This article was first published in the Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst (www.cacianalyst.org), a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center.)