The Dangerous Afghan Drawdown

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The Dangerous Afghan Drawdown

Obama claimed that the light of peace could be seen in Afghanistan. But conflicting agendas among the main players leaves its future uncertain.

In his much-anticipated announcement of the drawdown of troops from Afghanistan, US President Barack Obama declared that the United States will withdraw 33,000 troops from Afghanistan by September 2012. Striking a confident tone, he assured his nation that the drawdown of troops was being undertaken from a ‘position of strength.’ Under his assessment, ‘the tide of war is receding…in Afghanistan, the light of a secure peace can be seen in the distance.’

The decision to withdraw troops from Afghanistan is certainly going to be game changer. But will it lead to greater or less stability in Afghanistan?

Certainly, the early indications are that the Taliban might have been emboldened by Obama’s announcement. They’ve stepped up their activity, and the attack on the fortified Intercontinental hotel in Kabul this week is a bad omen. Such a projection of resilience is in stark contrast with the desperate lack of governance in Afghanistan, combined with lax security, rampant corruption, high unemployment, weak institutions and rising civilian casualties from Western air attacks.

The problems are compounded by the fact that Afghanistan, Pakistan and the United States – the three key players in this war – have divergent views and interests over counterinsurgency operations and reconciliation with the Taliban. And, with the three likely to pursue different agendas as the US troop drawdown begins, expect them to move to try to maximize their own gains in the post-withdrawal phase.

Already, the United States is engaged in secretive talks with the Taliban, with an eye on being able to hasten its drawdown. US hopes lay in putting together a political arrangement that includes the Taliban, and to this end it has already softened its position, helping to ensure that the Taliban are separated from al-Qaeda operatives on the list of entities under UN sanctions. The idea here is to induce the Taliban into breaking its links with al-Qaeda, renounce violence and recognize the Afghan constitution as part of any talks.

Yet the US efforts to talk directly with the Taliban have upset the Pakistanis, and there seems a genuine possibility that, as in the past, Pakistan will try to scuttle US discussions with the Taliban. The United States would therefore do well to heed the words of Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani, who said, ‘Nothing will happen without us, because we are part of the solution.’

Why? Because Pakistan regards Afghanistan as a rearguard, and it sees US efforts as being at odds with its own interests.

The US raid that killed Osama Bin Laden, who was hiding deep within Pakistan, has seriously strained US-Pakistan relations. The Pakistani Army has been publicly criticized for having failed to defend the country’s sovereignty, and Pakistan has forced the United States to withdraw 120 of its operatives, including those who were providing training for the Frontier Corps.

Of course, given its aid dependency, Pakistan will continue its questionable cooperation with the United States in dealing with the Taliban, at least in the short run. But Pakistan sees in the US withdrawal a strategic opportunity to reestablish its influence in Afghanistan by rebuilding relations with the militants from whom it had distanced itself under US pressure. This seems likely the main reason for Pakistan’s reluctance to expand the theatre of war to include North Waziristan, where the Haqqani network is based.

With the United States and others set to withdraw, Afghan President Hamid Karzai will be left with multiple problems. For a start, Afghanistan is trying to open its own negotiations with the Taliban (so far with little success) in order to create multiple stakeholders in the future system of governance. It’s ironic then that Karzai, who once accused Pakistan of fomenting terrorism in Afghanistan, now describes Pakistan as Afghanistan’s ‘twin.’ Indeed, Afghanistan has also formed a joint commission with Pakistan aimed at holding direct negotiations with the Taliban. The joint commission, established in January, includes representatives of both countries’ army and security agencies.

Karzai’s relations with Western nations, meanwhile, have deteriorated sharply. They have, for example, openly sparred over Karzai’s controversial re-election, as well as on the sensitive issue of corruption. Karzai, of course, is also playing to a domestic audience, going as far as hinting that Western forces are the ‘occupiers.’ This could well rankle the United States, which is unlikely to provide a blank cheque to Karzai unless he takes visible action against the rampant corruption that has fed the insurgency.

Ties between the United States and Afghanistan aren’t hopeless – despite the strains, the two sides are reportedly discussing a ‘strategic partnership.’ But growing public anger in Afghanistan over the mounting civilian casualties leaves Karzai, who is likely to seek another term in office, in a quandary. On the one hand, he desperately needs US security and economic assistance. On the other, he can’t be seen to be too close to the United States. As a result, he tells domestic audiences that ‘we have tied up US hands and feet with our conditions’ in the proposed first draft of the strategic agreement. But he is also negotiating hard to ensure continued military and economic assistance under the partnership agreement with the United States. He is also trying to engage with Iran, Russia and China bilaterally.

Meanwhile, nation building in Afghanistan is no longer a declared aim for the United States, with the sole US objective now apparently not to tolerate a safe haven for those who aim to kill US citizens. The question is, how will the Obama administration meet even this diminished goal? Pakistan hasn’t proved to be a reliable partner – terrorists continue to find a safe haven in Pakistan, something bin Laden’s killing won’t change.

Until the United States accepts that Taliban safe havens in Pakistan also need to be dismantled, then lasting security will prove elusive. There are reports that the United States may keep military bases in Afghanistan as the bulk of troops are withdrawn. But it’s anybody’s guess if this will be enough to quell al-Qaeda/Taliban havens in Pakistan.

The US troop withdrawal appears to be motivated largely by domestic US considerations – the country is simply too tired to continue with the expensive war in Afghanistan. The danger is, though, that a hurriedly executed troop withdrawal may satisfy Obama’s domestic compulsions, but will leave the region in an even deeper mess.

Smruti S. Pattanaik is Research Fellow and Arvind Gupta holds the Lal Bahadur Shastri Chair at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared here.