By: Salman Rafi Sheikh

The drama of NATO’s withdrawal from Afghanistan is reaching its climax. Or is it? It seems likely to most observers that with any major drawdown, the Taliban plan a surge of their own that could well mean the loss of country after the 30-nation NATO coalition has lost 3,455 combat troops – the US, 2,179 of them.

The loss of the country would be unacceptable today in the wake of dramatic advances by radical fundamentalist forces in Syria and Iraq, where the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) is seeking to establish a caliphate in the Levant. There is widespread talk in Washington DC among conservatives that bumbling by the administration of US President Barack Obama by not intervening in Syria has cost the Iraqi government a major portion of its hard-won soil.

That has been compounded by the recent trade of US Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl for five captured senior Taliban leaders. Many in the conservative camp believe Bergdahl was a deserter who left his post to be captured five years ago, and that a trade of tenacious enemy leaders wasn’t worth it. These two events make it unlikely that the Obama administration could take the heat of the “loss” of another country.

Certainly Obama himself now is sounding ambiguous. He announced the US withdrawal plan and the emplacement of 9,800 residual forces that will not only be “looking after” the Afghan National Force, but also would be guarding the “peace” that is expected to follow the withdrawal.

Obama’s announcement is as vague as the war itself, including the notion of a “successful” outcome. The greatest of all ambiguities is what the residual troops are being left for. What are the core objectives that the US aims to achieve in the post-2014 scenario? Is complete withdrawal really an option? Is the US attempting to pacify the Taliban for easing its way to signing the Bilateral Security agreement?

Politically the Bergdahl trade obviously implies a gamble, an off-the-scene process of dialogue going on, with the implicit assistance of Pakistan. That Pakistan is involved in this process becomes evident when we take into account that virtually no drone attacks have taken place on Pakistani soil during the past few months, especially when talks for prisoner exchange were most probably underway. The last time a drone hit a Pakistani target was in December 2013.

Similarly, the process also shows the existing distance between the US and the current Afghanistan establishment. It has been reported that authorities in Kabul were the last to learn about this deal, with President Hamid Karzai expressing outrage that he didn’t know anything about the negotiations with the militants and accusing the US of violating international law.

The fact is that the US, by managing this release with the Taliban leaders, has brought enormous pressure on the Karzai administration as well as the would-be president who is scheduled to replace him. Any help for the US in making the Afghans sign the bilateral security agreement is problematical. This tactic by no means implies that the US actually intends to get less interested in Afghanistan in a post-2014 scenario.

Symbolically, however, the fact that there are negotiations signifies that neither the US nor the Taliban is in a position to carry out a new wave of large-scale fighting at least in the near future. The use of the word and particular emphasis laid on “Al-Qaeda” in the withdrawal plan instead of “Taliban” also underscores the possibility of the off-the-scene process of dialogue.

On the other hand, the fact of the release of the Taliban leaders is also significant in terms of the ongoing preparations for the offensive the Taliban almost certainly intend to launch soon after the withdrawal. The situation is Afghanistan is, as such, extremely dicey; and, so is the US’s withdrawal plan.

According to some recent reports of a think-tank close to the Pentagon, the insurgency is most likely to swell after the withdrawal. Hence the question: would the US forces not be participating in active operations? According to the official narrative, the purpose of the residual troops is not to engage in direct combat operations, with the exception of supporting counter-terrorism operations against the “remnants of Al-Qaeda.”

However, ground realities defy the US’s plans. It seems incredible to suggest, in the face of likely impending attacks by the Taliban, that the US forces would not be “active” on the ground, or that the forces would not respond to any attack.

Obviously, such an absurd stipulation as this cannot be accepted. That the US Special Forces will remain as engaged in the war as they are today also becomes apparent when we take into account the actual capacity of the Afghan National Forces to fight. Apart from high desertion rate and infiltration of the Taliban in the ANF, the simple drawdown of the US forces is likely to necessitate an annual commitment of as much as US$6 billion to Afghan security forces to make up the difference.

Would the US be willing to fulfill this commitment in the wake of its economic conditions, with no major financial support forthcoming from its allies? It is highly unlikely that this will happen.

If it is not going to happen, how can then we expect that any meaningful material change would occur on the ground except that the number of troops actually fighting in Afghanistan will be reduced? The US almost certainly will have to review its exit strategy in the wake of the renewed conflict in Iraq.

Even if the number of fighting troops is reduced, it does not in any way imply that the US would not do targeted killings through drone attacks. The President’s speech does not say anything about it. On the other hand, according to some reports a new generation of jet-propelled Predator drones is ready to take on a bigger role in the region. The General Atomics Avenger can roam up to 1,800 miles away from bases, hitting an estimated top speed of 500 mph. It should be able to climb to 50,000 feet and operate for up to 18 hours at a time. It is a serious development as far as the US’s fighting strategy is concerned, since most American drones currently deployed in Afghanistan lack the range to track Taliban forces into the rugged and mountainous terrain of most of the region.

While the new generation of drones will be able to carry a deadly payload of Paveway II laser-guided bombs, Hellfire II A-G missiles, Sidewinder A-A missiles, and JDAMs. The Avenger’s improvements should provide enough range to allow it to monitor the volatile and remote regions of Afghanistan as well as Pakistan without putting troops on the ground.

Furthermore, President Obama’s speech reveals a lot of ambiguities which seem to have been deliberately projected to instill a particular image of the war in the public’s imagination. For example, the claim that by the end of 2014, the US will have those objectives that originally took it to the war is as ambiguous as the “cause” of the war itself.

How can one believe that the objectives are going to be achieved when the US still has to negotiate with the Taliban to manage the release of one soldier in exchange for five Taliban leaders? How can we believe that the US has dismantled the so-called terrorist networks when the Taliban are as tenacious, powerful and deadly as they were a few years ago?

Similarly, how can we believe that the US forces will not be taking the lead in ground operations when the ANF continues to suffer 400 casualties per month as a result of the Taliban’s attacks?

The fact of the matter is that the US’s plan, at least in the short term, is not to end the war. With the political situation rapidly changing in Afghanistan and with presidential elections underway, and the deteriorating geo-political situation of the region extending to the North and to West Asia, the US is not expected, even with its residual force, to contain its activities only to the training of the ANF or to limited ground operations. It is most likely to expand its activities as the number and intensity of attacks by the Taliban would increase.

The US’s insistence on gaining immunity for its forces is also indicative of the kind of operations they would possibly be conducting, although the number of such operations may be smaller as compared to today, but fighting will continue and the end of war does not seem to be a possibility at least in the foreseeable future.

Salman Rafi Sheikh is a Pakistan-based academic.