The feasibility of a continued United States presence in Afghanistan

Published in South Asia

By Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn

Recent events in Afghanistan have fuelled speculation over the ability of international forces to continue their presence in the country until 2014. In January 2012, four American Marines in Helmand were shown in a video urinating on Afghan corpses. In February, in a case that appears to have been no more than exceedingly poor judgement, copies of the Qur'an were burnt, damaged and treated disrespectfully manner. In March, a US army staff sergeant in the Panjwayi district of Kandahar province is believed to have killed seventeen individuals (many of them women and children) in a single night.

 These events are extreme outliers that have captured the imagination of Afghans and foreigners alike, and seem to many to be a continuation of the past decade of war. In the perception of many Afghans, the difference between these extreme events and the ongoing more frequent violence of night raids, large military operations and so on seems marginal. A number of prominent international voices have called on the United States (and the forty-nine other countries serving in the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) coalition) to start leaving Afghanistan immediately. Their argument is that foreign forces are unable to play a positive role in Afghanistan, that they will be unable to start doing so, and that large numbers of lives and amounts of money are being spent to no avail.

Aside from this international discourse, there have also been calls from inside Afghanistan for international forces to leave – most loudly by the various groups that make up the insurgency. This is echoed to some extent by public opinion, although it is difficult to get an accurate reading of people's attitudes in the current environment. The general themes of Afghan public opinion – as gathered from discussions with Afghans and by following civil society debate and media discourse – towards the foreign presence is a deep scepticism towards anyone's promises. Outside the major cities, there is a severe lack of trust in international forces or in any overall positive vision of Afghanistan's future. It seems that few are hopeful that Afghanistan will be better off five years from now.

A key metric that illustrates this is the number of Afghans leaving the country for neighbouring countries, and travelling further afield. This group includes a large number of children and youth. In fact, 2011 saw the highest number of such departures since the United States-led invasion began in 2001 – more than 30,000. This paper will assess the current staying power of the international presence in Afghanistan from a military and broader strategic perspective. To what extent are they able to continue to carry out their mission? What are the likely key milestones between now and 2014? And to what extent do the on-going discussions between the United States and the Taliban offer a way to make this transition period easier?

On paper, the transition or enteqal process has a number of benchmarks, some of which have already been reached. This year, Afghanistan will most likely sign the highly contested Status of Forces Agreement with the United States. The agreement provides a legal and practical framework for the US presence in Afghanistan after 2014. The central sticking point in the ongoing bilateral discussions has been the extent to which the US will be allowed to continue to operate out of bases in Afghanistan. Chicago will host a NATO conference in May, and this will be followed by a conference in Kabul. These are expected to affirm the 'transition' process and endorse its continued implementation. The upcoming US presidential election on 6 November will provoke intense speculation, hedging and political stasis within Afghanistan in the months leading up to it as all parties to the conflict predict how their fortunes may rise or fall depending on electoral outcomes. Afghanistan is scheduled to have its own presidential elections in 2014, although the precise dates and mechanics of that election remain unclear.

While 'transition' is regarded as a multilevel process, it appears primarily to be premised on a transfer of military control to Afghans. International military forces will be reduced and control of those areas from which international forces are withdrawn will fall to Afghan security forces (of whatever shape or form). This includes the army and police forces. This year, a number of private security companies that protect local and international programmes, offices and staff around the country are due to transition into the Afghanistan Public Protection Force (APPF). This has been delayed several times, however, and some entities will be exempt from the process. The militia forces that ISAF has been installing around the country – for example, in Kunduz, Kandahar and Helmand – will play a key part in this transition process and will mimic the Soviet withdrawal in the late 1990s. The issue of a political transfer of power will also come to the fore in 2014, when President Hamid Karzai is to hand over power to a new president after elections. The US will want to find a way to involve itself in this process in a useful way.

The various elements of this transition process have all been called into question over the past year. Each element is the subject of heated debate, as was seen during recent testimony by ISAF commander, General John R. Allen on 20 March. The factual basis for claims of progress as well as the nature of the process itself are still under debate.

The Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) and its ability to perform as required by the transition plan have repeatedly been challenged over the past year. The Afghan National Army is still only able to field only one battalion capable of operating independently. The use of militia forces – under a plethora of names and designations – has not been problem-free. These groups have been involved in the same human rights violations, corruption and uses of violence that they were set up in part to prevent. The Afghan government has yet seriously to tackle the issue of internal corruption, and attempts to block investigations have come from as high up as President Karzai himself. Also, in terms of their forward-planning, there are few indications that the US has started to anticipate the various possible scenarios surrounding the 2014 Afghan presidential elections, a milestone that it needs to start engaging with immediately.

This catalogue of doubt as to the efficacy of the international mission in Afghanistan is undeniable, but does it call into question the staying power of those forces? After all, previous years have also seen problems and mistakes, but international forces remained and even expanded their presence.

The Taliban and its affiliated groups continue to remain an issue, in part because their continued attacks make it difficult for NATO/ISAF to claim the upper hand. After all, the realities of the levels of violence only count if the population does not believe that these trend shifts are not going to be permanent or meaningful for their own lives and that of their children. The Taliban will likely attempt to demonstrate its continued ability to operate throughout the country, albeit through a continued emphasis on asymmetric tactics such as improvised explosive devices (IEDs), assassinations and 'spectacular' operations.

This is unlikely to be quantitatively different from attacks and threats that the international forces within Afghanistan have already faced. Even if we assume there will be more individual incidents of the type that we saw in recent weeks or even on the level of the border incident between US and Pakistani forces in November 2011, it is unlikely that the reaction to these would be such that international forces would have to accelerate their departure. Undoubtedly, it is the fact of their looming departure that itself plays a role in accentuating some of these disputes.

It is in this context that the ongoing, sometimes faltering, negotiation process is being held. The promise of negotiations with the insurgency is very much part of the US 'transition' strategy. There has been increasing talk about a political solution that potentially holds the promise of stopping the current downward spiral and which could not only prepare the ground for the withdrawal of foreign troops but even achieve much-desired stability in Afghanistan that will prevent the country from again becoming a terrorist haven. If they are left as they are, there is considerable doubt that the current Kabul government will remain viable and that the Afghan security forces will have the ability to control and counter the growing insurgency. Riddled with corruption and stripped of legitimacy by endemic election fraud, much of the central state seems to be plagued with internal conflict and is currently held together only by foreign actors. On the other hand, a potential political process that would see a change in the balance of power within the central state as well as on the local level will be met with considerable resistance from the incumbent elite.

While there might be incentives to find a political solution, there are also factions within both the insurgency and the Afghan government that are opposed to a settlement or to a substantial inclusion of the insurgency into the current political paradigm. Karzai has stressed that he seeks reconciliation but there are significant voices within the current administration that are not interested in any such process. While the ongoing capture-or-kill campaign is removing credible negotiation partners among the Taliban, the current Afghan government also lacks credibility. Time, however, is of the essence.

Moreover, the perception among the Taliban is that it is 'winning'. Numerous military and political leaders have announced that the insurgency's momentum has been reversed, but this does not reflect the perception of much of the general public – particularly in Afghanistan's south and east but increasingly in the north as well. The underlying assumption of the US troop surge, that negotiations need to be held from a position of strength and that the Taliban should be forced to the negotiation table by military pressure, offers a bleak prospect for peace. A key incentive in the other direction can be found in the realisation that present conditions are a precursor for civil war. This prospect of a return to civil war – similar to that of the 1990s – offers an incentive for all participants in Afghanistan to begin working on a political settlement that could prevent this from becoming a reality.

The status of the US-Pakistani relationship is likely to play a key role in this process. While the two countries will likely remain caught in their false embrace – each needing the other but not caring much for the other at the same time – the extent of Pakistani support for the Afghan Taliban's operations could make a huge difference in terms of how active the group is between now and 2014. Pakistan retains the capacity to clamp down on the leadership, logistics and operational activities of the Afghan Taliban within Pakistan.

It is likely that the international transition plan will happen more or less on schedule, with all the relevant milestones achieved. There is a considerable amount of leeway for this to happen and even with all the problems noted above, 2014 will see an attempt on the part of all parties to the conflict (from the US to the Taliban) to declare victory. Indeed, both are already doing this. This is not to say that the ideal solution to Afghanistan's problems is likely to be achieved by 2014; too much would have to change for that to be possible. Instead, the transition process offers a way out for the current large international presence within the country. From the group's statements over the past year, it becomes clear that the discourse of those calling for reform is focused on several key issues: unemployment, housing, institutional reform and popular political participation, and the issue of prisoners of conscience and prisoners held without trial. This reformist discourse does not consider recent political decisions to be evidence of progress towards real political participation. Consequently, the recent decision on the participation of women was not celebrated, as the experience of women in these councils can at most be equal to that of their male predecessors, namely, the realisation of the ineffectiveness of the elected. Moreover, the decision came at a time when reform movements were campaigning to expand the powers of these councils and make them independent and fully-elected.

The lack of a path and a space through which women can engage in the political process renders decisions supporting women's rights akin to a car with no road to drive upon. It can only remain still, hovering over the same spot. It will remain difficult to capitalise on these decisions in the confining context in which the elites – particularly the political and religious elites – are to be held responsible. Women will not be able to succeed and find the space to voice their demands and act to achieve them if they are not present and active in these institutions in ways that will help to push forward the renewal of religious thought, and find appropriate forms for the country's political economy that will ensure a role for the individual citizen, whether man or woman. Any success for women in bringing about change in these two areas has the potential to reverberate more broadly, affecting the entire society and the network of social relations. If and when this is achieved, the restructuring of society will be one from which all will benefit.

* Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn live in Kandahar, Afghanistan. They edited the autobiography of Taliban leader Abdul Salam Zaeef, My Life with the Taliban. In 2006, they to improve awareness of issues relating to Afghanistan through a newsletter and informational database

** This article was first published by AlJazeera Centre for Studies, and is published here in terms of a partnership agreement between AlJazeera Centre and the Afro-Middle East Centre

Last modified on Thursday, 19 February 2015 13:27

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