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The Dangerous Afghan Drawdown (Page 2 of 2)

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.

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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.

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