After much anticipation, Western leaders have finally put some meat on their previously bare-bones proposals for stabilising Afghanistan over the next few years. The short story is that President Obama is sticking to the plan he outlined in his speech at West Point last year, whereby he intends to hand responsibility for the country’s governance and security back to the Afghan authorities over a five-year period starting from 2011.
That is a polite way of saying that he hopes the US-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), which includes around 2000 Australian service personnel, will be out of the country by 2016.
Whether or not the force’s leadership continues to see that as realistic or desirable is another matter, but a few signals of how this may actually unfold were revealed at the major international conference on the Afghan situation that was held in London last week. The conference identified three main aims: improve governance and delivery of aid; improve security by beefing up Afghan forces, escalating the US-led war and trying to win the support of Taliban militants; and increasing the involvement of neighbouring countries in this process.
In a significant change, conference attendees agreed to give Afghan authorities direct control of half of all aid flagged for the country. With the corruption-mired regime of President Karzai holding the reins however, governance issues are likely to remain a big problem. For his part, Karzai has promised more robust institutional oversight of his government and the funding it receives from abroad, including the set-up of an anti-corruption unit and tribunal. To be sure, the guiding hand of foreign bureaucrats will assist him in this attempt. For political and practical reasons, Karzai’s international backers cannot afford a repeat of last year’s farcical elections that saw the great political survivor returned as President amid widespread vote rigging.
From next year the ISAF hopes to expand the Afghan National Army (ANA) from around 100,000 to 170,000 troops, but meeting that target will be a challenge. Like the Afghan police forces, the ANA has a high attrition rate: according to US Defence Department statistics, one in four recruits quit the army last year. Another problem with the army is that it is dominated by ethnic Tajiks throughout its upper and lower ranks. Given that the Tajiks are fierce historical rivals of the Pashtuns, the ethnic group from which the Taliban emerged and in whose territories most of the conflict has been waged, there are serious doubts as to the ANA’s ability to provide unity, and not just security, for Afghanistan.
The new policy strategy will also seek to attract lower and middle rank Taliban members, and potentially even senior warlords, away from the insurgency to fight either in or alongside ANA forces. A fund of up to US$500 million has been proposed for this purpose including AUD$25 million from Australia. A further US$1.5 billion is already available to US commanders to fund overtures to Afghan militants although little is known about it. It is possible the US will use these funds to woo the most powerful Taliban commanders although any such move could be too politically explosive to disclose publicly.
President Karzai has offered to integrate key Taliban commanders into the formal political set up of Afghanistan. Officially, the US has been cool on this proposal. Like all other governments involved with Afghanistan, the Obama Administration wants to avoid accusations from its domestic political opponents that it is appeasing extremists. Nevertheless, policy wonks and elite observers have for at least the past two years accepted that negotiations with the Taliban are inevitable. Privately, some on the US side are looking favourably at this approach because it could open the way towards an exit strategy.
There are practical reasons to support a negotiated settlement with the Taliban. These insurgents are, as President Karzai remarked recently, "sons of the Afghan soil". The aversion many people have toward their oppressive social precepts cannot erase the fact that the Taliban is now the most organised political movement within the Pashtun community, the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan and the dominant force in the countries south and east.
Geostrategically, the idea of talking to the Taliban has gained traction ever since the final year of the Bush White House in 2008. Like previous empires, the US has realised that it cannot achieve a straightforward military victory in Afghanistan, partly due to that country’s size and remoteness, and partly due to the widespread popular resistance to foreign military presences in the country. Although difficult to quantify, a raft of recent research suggests that most rank-and-file members of the Taliban fight not for religious reasons but to defend against foreign occupation of their homeland, or because they feel that the Taliban are a more effective and legitimate authority than the highly corrupt and ineffectual regime of President Hamid Karzai, a regime that is almost totally dependent on foreign assistance for its survival.
In much the same vein, Taliban leader Mullah Omar has publicly ruled out negotiations with US-led forces until all foreign troops leave Afghanistan, a demand he has made ever since US forces invaded in late 2001. However, with the US building a massive new embassy in Kabul and an extensive network of military bases, it is questionable whether they do in fact intend to ever leave the country entirely.
That may militate against an end to hostilities in the foreseeable future, but there is anecdotal evidence to suggest that Mullah Omar is more flexible than his rhetoric suggests. According to some media reports, Omar has flagged the possibility of a renegotiation of the national constitution with other Afghan leaders — the Taliban considers the current one illegitimate owing to Western involvement in its drafting. Another demand is the integration of ethnic Pashtun Taliban forces into the Tajik-dominated Afghan National Army.
Most significant of all, however, was Omar’s statement last November during the Muslim holy festival of Eid, that a future Taliban government would not pose a threat to neighbouring countries, a clear suggestion that al Qaeda would no longer be welcome.
Subtle as it is, comments such as these have reverberated loudly in Washington and Brussels, headquarters of the NATO alliance that is running ISAF. They are seen as significant developments, given the Taliban’s reputation for refusing to compromise on its core principles.
In truth, however, foreign leaders are desperate to end a conflict that looks unwinnable. As nearly every country fighting in Afghanistan is doing so in spite of majority opposition to the war at home, their presence in this devastated Central Asian nation has become a massive political liability for many governments.
That is why another aim of the London Conference was to increase the involvement of Afghanistan’s neighbouring countries in its stabilisation, but apart from confirmed US allies India and Pakistan, key regional powers China and Russia took a back seat at the negotiations. Iran, another one of Afghanistan’s pivotal neighbours, did not even send a delegation to the London conference, saying the event was only being held "to increase military presence in Afghanistan, and does not deal fundamentally with Afghan woes nor count on regional capacities to resolve the problems".
Perhaps that was too harsh a rebuke but the fact remains that, despite attempts to move from conflict to conciliation, the US is still calling the shots and it is still looking for a military solution.
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