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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