Afghanistan: What Withdrawal?

Any idea that NATO and US forces will be out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014, as President Barack Obama promised, is a chimera, most probably a casualty of the deteriorating situation in the Middle East, where the Islamic State has rushed into the vacuum left by the departing US presence.

The Bilateral Security Agreement signed in September with newly-installed Afghan President Ashraf Ghani will keep much of the past intact and deeply entrenched for another decade at least. Despite the widespread wishes of the Afghan people themselves, the pact means that the US and its allies will remain on Afghan soil for years to come and that the war will not end. Even the so-called historic “democratic transition” doesn’t mean much. On the contrary, it is this very “democracy” that has facilitated prolongation of the “war on terror.”

The people of Afghanistan didn’t have to wait for long to see their newly elected president finalizing the security agreement with the US, just a day after he was sworn in. In fact, he and other candidates for the presidency had already vowed, during their election campaigns, to sign it.

Notwithstanding its critical importance both for the US and Afghan governments, the Afghan people themselves think of it differently. For them, the agreement won’t do any good for their already demoralized situation; rather it will most likely prolong what is already the US’s longest war and so will increase their own problems and miseries on both sides of the Durand Line, the porous, ill-defined border between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

What is now being called “good” for the people of Afghanistan was not acceptable to the previous government. As such the mood at the signing ceremony was in marked contrast to the increasingly intense and even hostile exchange of expressions between the officials of the Karzai and US governments. Among other things that turned Karzai against signing this agreement, one of the most important was that this agreement will in no way bring an end to the ongoing war.

The agreement allows 9,800 US and at least 2,000 NATO troops to remain after the international combat mission formally ends at the end of next month. Most of them will help train and assist the struggling Afghan security forces, which show not a sign of being able to defend the country, although some US Special Operations forces will remain to conduct counterterrorism missions.

Under the agreement’s annexes, the US military als9o will have access to nine major land and airbases, including the massive airfields at Bagram, Jalalabad and Kandahar, staging areas not only for air operations in Afghanistan but also for drone strikes across the border in tribal Pakistan. If a clinching argument is required to argue that the war isn’t actually ending or that there isn’t going to be a “post-withdrawal” scenario, the agreement provides it. Nothing in it prevents a US president from increasing the number of US troops in Afghanistan again, well beyond the stipulated number of troops and increase the extent as well as nature of operations in Afghanistan.

This is not the end of the story. In his attempt to bring peace back to Afghanistan, Ghani also expressed his willingness to sign a separate garrisoning accord with NATO forces, known as a Status of Forces Agreement, which would allow the NATO forces to stay a bit longer.

Still another aspect of the agreement is illusive enough to cast shadows on the issue of withdrawal. This undecided question is the role of US airstrikes in the post-2014 scenario. Outraged by civilian casualties, Karzai had all but banned air attacks, which many Afghan commanders say have contributed to the high civilian casualty rate. Ghani has, unlike his predecessor, showed his willingness to reverse that stance. In a way, given these factors, the war in Afghanistan is going to remain as deadly for the common Afghan as it has been in the past year or so.

While the president might have thought of the crucial need of foreign troops for maintaining his authority, the fact that Afghanistan’s economy would have crumbled without foreign aid—which would have stopped flowing if the pact hadn’t been signed –also prompted the new government to sign. As a matter of fact, Karzai’s government did not need the money because it was leaving office, The incoming government, however, certainly can’t be expected to function without foreign assistance.

Notwithstanding these internal constraints, the signing of the agreement and the possibility of some other agreements has, to a great extent, been facilitated by the global context as well. Over the past few months, things have dramatically changed in the Middle East. The chaos in Iraq following the US withdrawal has taught crucial lessons to US planners and has forced them to rethink their withdrawal strategy. The very clause allowing the US President to increase the number of troops as and when needed is certainly an indication of what the US planners have in mind: a possible escalation of conflict. It is obvious that the Taliban have not and will not stop attacking US/NATO forces or the Afghan national Army. It can thus be concluded that the pact, the main purpose of which was training the Afghan forces, is now actually to be used as a hedge against the Taliban.

US ambassador James Cunningham said the agreement is the choice of the Afghan people decided via their newly elected leadership. But talking to Afghan refugees in the suburban areas of Islamabad and Peshawar in Pakistan, one thing that is crystal clear is that nobody thinks the agreement is going to do any good. For them, the war is simply not ending; it is entering a new scenario. They have no hope that either the US or the new Afghan government to finally end the war. For them, it will go on for at least another decade.

To them, this is just a matter of politics. Ashraf Ghani and M. Abdullah, divided on the election results, were unanimous on signing this agreement well before the elections, said an elderly farmer from eastern Afghanistan. Sharif Ali, who was a University student and well informed about the situation in the Middle East, was quick to link the current Afghan scenario with the Middle Eastern situation. Muhammad Ibrahim, a lawyer by profession, said there is not going to be any “post-withdrawal” scenario, given that thousands of troops will still be patrolling Afghan soil and doing so under the shadow of legal immunity. He said that under these circumstances, the foreign troops will cause more devastation than they have since the US invasion in 2002 and that they will keep killing people in the name of counter-terrorism.

The nature and extent of these counter-terrorism operations remains shrouded, adding to uncertainty already prevailing concerns. In fact, their nature and extent is to be decided by the troops on the ground. State Department officials in Washington did not specify the scope and nature of the ongoing operations, which are to be conducted in partnership with Afghan forces. The vagueness is undoubtedly adding to the fears of Afghans about at least a decade-long extension of the war. This agreement has at least ensured that Barack Obama, who was elected as the US president in 2008 on a wave of anti-war sentiment, will conveniently pass off both the Afghanistan war and his new war in Iraq and Syria to his successor, notwithstanding that in 2010 his vice-president, Joe Biden had publicly vowed that the US would be totally out of Afghanistan “come hell or high water, by 2014.”

All talk of withdrawal seems meaningless when it comes to answering the question of presence of more than 10,000 foreign troops –a number that can and will most likely go up if the Taliban intensify attacks. The Afghan question, as such, cannot be viewed in isolation. The US’s Afghan policy will most probably change according to the Middle Eastern situation. Afghanistan as such hangs between two poles: the Taliban and a decade long US/NATO presence.

Given that, it matters very little what the common Afghan citizen thinks. For him, “post-withdrawal” will be the day when there are no foreign troops, and when he is in a position to take the matters of his country into his own hands.

“We have a long history replete with numerous examples of dispute resolution, solely done by our elders,” said 24-year-old Sharif Ali. If we were able to bring peace in the past, we can do the same now also. But the question is: would foreign powers let us do this?”