Afghan “exit strategy” begins to unravel

January 31, 2012

The Afghan “exit strategy” appears to be fraying badly before it has even had time to get properly underway. With many fearing civil war after foreign combat troops leave at the end of 2014, it was always going to be hard to weave together the different elements needed to offer a hope of peace. Among those elements was a concerted international strategy to show outside powers were not going to abandon Afghanistan by promising generous funding after foreign troops leave;  some kind of regional detente, and sufficient momentum behind talks with Taliban insurgents to shape the conditions for a dignified withdrawal.

Yet signs are that it is getting harder rather than easier to pull those different moving parts together.

On the international front, French President Nicolas Sarkozy has suggested that all responsibility for security should be handed over to Afghan forces by the end of 2013 -rather than the end of 2014 as planned. The idea is not particularly new – U.S. officials have also been reported to have explored the possibility of speeding up the transition. It would have the merit of allowing Afghan forces to take charge of security while U.S. and other combat troops remain to help in an emergency, and could also ease talks with insurgents, who derive much of their support from their opposition to “foreign occupation”. 

Yet what chafed was that Sarkozy, who also announced France was pulling its own combat troops out by the end of 2013, gave the appearance of breaking ranks – undermining the consensus needed to give western countries leverage as they negotiate their way out of Afghanistan. He was also seen as being driven more by domestic politics after four French soldiers were killed than by a desire to frame a coherent, internationally agreed strategy.  That is significant, not so much for what it means before 2014, but for what it says about the international approach to Afghanistan after 2014. Right now, the international community is engaged in a game of bluff about who is going to pick up the tab to fund Afghanistan’s development and security forces after 2014 – to succeed, all countries are going to have to agree to share the burden.  If each country decides to put their domestic politics – and budgets – first, that is not going to happen and the Kabul government will fall. (The American Security Project has a great timeline illustrating the intersection between national elections and the Afghan withdrawal.)

Meanwhile, a regional detente – crucial among them being the relationship between Pakistan and Afghanistan – is looking tenuous at best. Pakistan Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar travels to Kabul this week to try to revive talks on a peace settlement after months of tension following the assassination in September of Afghan peace negotiator Burhanuddin Rabbani.  Yet the relationship between the two countries is notoriously volatile – after repairing the rift over Rabbani’s assassination in lengthy talks in Istanbul in November, Pakistan then snubbed Afghanistan by boycotting a conference in Bonn in December in protest over NATO airstrikes which killed 24 of its soldiers on the Afghan border.

As things stand, Pakistan and Afghanistan relations are still at the very early stages of damage repair, vulnerable to events, and far from the kind of engagement needed to address the more serious issues which divide them.  While Pakistan wants a friendly government in Kabul and curbs on Indian influence, the Afghan government is more inclined to build ties with India. While Pakistan wants a recognition of the Durand Line – the porous border defined by an 1893 agreement made by British colonial rulers – no Afghan government is expected to acknowledge it (the Taliban refused to do so when they were in power in Kabul from 1996 to 2001). While Afghanistan, along with the United States, blames the strength of the insurgency on its safe havens in Pakistan,  Pakistani officials  blame poor governance, corruption and a thriving narcotics trade on the Afghan side. And while western powers are building up Afghan security forces, Islamabad and Rawalpindi fear a strong Afghan army which could eventually pose a threat to Pakistan.

Most importantly, the two countries are far apart on how much the Taliban should be included in any eventual political settlement.  Though Pakistan’s policy on the Taliban – whose leadership is believed to be based there – is opaque, it is generally seen as wanting a sizeable, though not necessarily dominant, role for the Islamist group. Maleeha Lodhi, a former Pakistan ambassador close to the military establishment, suggested in an op-ed published last month that talks depended on giving the Taliban recognition as significant players. “The Afghan Taliban will not negotiate if they think they are weak and being shot at. Indications are that they will do so only if they can engage in talks as ‘equal’ partners,” she wrote.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has, however, been deeply anxious about Taliban talks, worrying about the United States giving away too many concessions in secret negotiations which might eventually cast his own administration aside.  He has pushed for direct talks with the Taliban in Saudi Arabia which  would run alongside, or even compete with, a separate strand of U.S.-Taliban talks in Qatar, allowing him rather than the United States to control the process. So far Saudi Arabia has not shown much enthusiasm for being drawn into mediating peace talks. But even the possibility of separate strands of talks has shown how hard it will be to contain and manage the peace process, and prevent it being exploited either by different countries, or the Taliban themselves, to play off one side against the other.

In the meantime, the U.S.-Taliban talks appear to be dragging on at their usual glacial pace – it took them a year to agree to set up a Taliban office in Qatar and even that seems to be stalled amid reports of arguments over the release of Taliban prisoners, and over the exact nature of the Taliban representation.

There is of course plenty of time for a breakthrough – there are still nearly three years to go before foreign combat troops pull out. But given all the many other doubts about the chances of a peaceful settlement,  the indications so far from this year are not positive. For now the civil war Cassandras  appear to have the stronger case.


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It seems that after the shock and awe campaign by the Taliban, the world’s greatest military is on the verge of a historic defeat. It is safe to say that as Taliban are now a force to be reckoned with, the only way out is to negotiate with them for a safe passage. Good Luck!

Posted by Umairpk | Report as abusive

The rats are deserting the sinking ship. Zarkosi wanted to pull out immediately, but under pressure from the yanks announced 2013! What happened to 2014?

The Americans should stop blaming Pakistan for their set backs.

Pakistan should open up the containers now stranded on the Grand Trunk highway and expose the merchandise to the Press which was being sent to Afghanistan for its eventual use against Pakistan! The yanks reckoned that Pakistan ISI can be fooled as on previous occasions.

Rex Minor

Posted by pakistan | Report as abusive


The Yanks won’t have it easy from here on, not after they martyred 24 of our soldiers and officers. The containers will remained blocked and supply lines will be choked. as for the ISI, they continue their propaganda about ISI supporting the Taliban. In reality the Yanks messed up themselves and handed over the victory to Taliban. Had they listened years before and followed advice to cut their losses and run it would have been better. Afghans are a traditionally conservative agrarian society, no one can change the groud realities.

Posted by Umairpk | Report as abusive

American approach to problems is carrot and stick. When carrots are rotten and sticks are broken, there is massive confusion in halls of the hill.
The best they could do was to push forward their pawn Qatar with no clout with any player. Days are getting short, cold and dark.
Then Afghan tribes were formed by remnants of invading armies from time immemorial. There is a small chance of forming another tribe in the ethnic mosaic only if Americans could learn the survival skills from locals.

Posted by Matrixx | Report as abusive

Americans are slow learners, di they learn anything from Vietnam? But surely, the lesson Afghanistan will teach them will not be forgotten so quickly.

Posted by Umairpk | Report as abusive

@Umair, Matrix

To continue a war against the people who are hospitable and protect those who are given asylum, is the blunder that the incumbent President undertook. It is going to cost him his presidency and hence the rapid withdrawl and sufficing American low key criminal activity by the use of CIA actions including target killing with drones. Pakistan military has not yet found a recipe against this evil other than Gillani protests, not even going to the UNO or the criminal court for the violation of Pakistan sovereignity.

Pakistan military must have learnt now, after their experience with the yanks and the CIA, that as individuals today’s flat footed americans are extremely incompetent and have no sense to appreciate other cultures. They are on the run and are now talking about 2013 for halt of combat mission. Mind you,the Pashtuns have not yet announced the all out offensive against the infdels, when Mr Karzai will also be obliged to go along with the decision of all tribes. The Brits have had a taste of this in history. Hence the sceptic of the British General who did not agree with NATO report that the so called Taibans are controlled by Pakistan ISI.

Afghan Pashtun tribes were not formed from the remnants of the invading armies. They have their unique history and are the only one who were blessed by Prophet Mohammad(pbuh) when tribe after tribe converted to Islam. They roughly total approx. 40 million living in the triangular shape terrtoryof about 250,000 sq. miles, starting from Dir in the north , along the Indus, which a westwatd turn a few miles south of Dera Ismail Khan, and embracing within its fold Loralai, Sharigh, Degari, Harnal, Quetta, Pishin, Chaman and Qndhar extending upto Herat.They live in no go security zones and foreigners are regarded as intruders.By foreigners they mean all who do not speak their language and the dialect.

The former General Macchrystal discovered this first hand and by studying the history of his scotts ancestors, including General Warburton!

Pashtuns do not negotiate but have definite conditions,they are known to be treacerous, one must meet their demands or use force to defeat them on battle ground. To be honest the yanks and the NATO have proven to be the weakest the Pashtuns have ever encountered in their history. The marines usual night raids and advances with the help of helicopters and trying to win the heart by paying cash to the village elders and sweets to the children was not more than a farce.

Rex Minor

Posted by pakistan | Report as abusive


Qatar is a zionist and by removing the palestinian director of AlJazeera (english) he has bowed down to the pressure of the clintonians mafia of the USA.

Al-Jazeera is now Al-crap with all the ex cNN reporters and anchors have joined into to making it a CIA propaganda organ, concentrating mainly on the arab revolution.

After the USA debacle in Afghanistan, they are pulling out of Germany as well. God bless America!

Rex Minor

Posted by pakistan | Report as abusive

yanks should leave afghanistan, iraq, libya and egypt and the world is peacefull again.

Posted by mrksaeed | Report as abusive