(My written statement for the Senate Standing Committee on Defense and Defense Production on Challenges for NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan)
While the world waits for peace and stability in Afghanistan, recent events in neighbouring war-torn country point towards more uncertainty.
Drawdown of coalition forces and handover of security responsibilities to Afghan forces in different parts of the country, two processes happening simultaneously, are proceeding according to the roadmap agreed at North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) Lisbon Summit in 2010 and re-emphasized at the 2012 Chicago Summit.
In certain cases, the withdrawal is taking place at an accelerated pace. France, the fifth largest troops’ contributor to International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, is due to complete its pullout by the end of 2012, a year earlier than initially planned, whereas NATO has pulled back its deadline for completing transition from combat to training and assistance role; and putting Afghans in the lead security role by mid-2013.
Britain, according to some reports, too is debating plans for an accelerated withdrawal in 2013.
It is, at the same time, important to note that the withdrawal timescales are being revisited individually by ISAF member countries without necessarily coordinating their schedules with others.
Near term outlook for Afghanistan where Phase-I of transition has been completed and phases II & III are nearing completion — after which 75 per cent of the Afghan population would be living in areas with local security forces in the lead role — remains bleak.
The situation can be summed up as very fragile. To quote the International Crisis Group report launched this month: “Afghanistan is hurtling toward a devastating political crisis as the government prepares to take full control of security in 2014.”
The coalition forces have scaled down their goals for Afghanistan of 2014. Besides, agreeing on reducing the planned size of security forces, now there is little emphasis on good governance, strengthening of democracy, observance of human rights and girls education. Instead the entire talk is about leaving behind ‘a modicum of stability’.
The US and its partners have repeatedly reiterated their commitment to supporting post-2014 Afghanistan, but there have been doubts about the materialization of those pledges because of their war weary publics and tightening budgets. Sudden dip in planned expenditures on security to $4-$6 billion per annum after 2014 from $100 billion per year in the preceding period is hardly reassuring.
Americans have signed Strategic Partnership Agreement with the Afghan government while NATO has its Declaration on Enduring Partnership with Kabul. Both documents are meant to assure the Afghans of a long-term partnership after 2014, but in any case their operationalization depends much on how things shape up as we move to 2014 and beyond.
However, there are few silver linings to this otherwise gloomy scenario – a semblance of a democratic system has been established; institutions, though flawed, are working, the Afghan state appears to be finding its feet, Afghan National Army is growing and improving its capabilities, a better ethnic mix can be seen in ANA ranks, and desertion rates from the security forces are declining.
Taliban, meanwhile, have stepped up their attacks and so have the casualties risen. There is a perceptible change in Taliban tactics with an increased focus on assassinating senior and mid-ranking Afghan government officials. According to a ball park estimate such attacks have increased by almost 55 per cent this year compared to last year. The Taliban strategy could be to test the preparedness of the Afghan security forces taking over security responsibilities, inculcating fear among the Afghan government functionaries, and at times trying to regain control of areas they lost to coalition forces.
The intensification in fighting and the resultant surge in casualties aside, NATO’s exit strategy is visibly missing an acceptable closure to its war on terror. There have been a number of attempts at reconciliation with the Taliban, but they have been largely unsuccessful because the insurgents have been emboldened by the very fact that the coalition is not winning and is more interested in packing up.
The coalition would not have a cakewalk moving out about 1,30,000 troops from 50 countries and mountains of military hardware from Afghanistan. It is going to be a Herculean logistics exercise, which may continue beyond 2014 and probably security of the returning convoys could be one other important compulsion for US and its allies to have a political accommodation with the Taliban.
Lack of clarity on part of the Afghan government about the process and near absence of consensus within Afghanistan on reconciling with the insurgents is hurting the process most.
Equally important is that NATO’s withdrawal from Afghanistan which is being seen as a litmus test for the transatlantic politico-military alliance to succeed beyond Europe. Its failure would severely undermine its credibility vis-à-vis Russia and China, and perhaps Iran for long time to come, if not permanently.
And one cannot take eye off from the regional implications of NATO’s withdrawal particularly for Pakistan. The security situation on the borders of Afghanistan would have important bearing on efforts for peace and stability inside the country (Afghanistan) and in the same measure the internal Afghan situation would affect the security of the neighbours.
The absence of a plan for the region, in which the strategic interests of the neighbours could be adequately accommodated to incentivize their whole-hearted participation in the peace and reconciliation process, is undermining both immediate and long-term prospects for settlement.
The Roadmap for Transition.
Currently phases II & III of transition of security responsibilities to Afghan security forces are underway. After completion of these phases 75 per cent of the Afghan population would be living in areas where the local forces play a lead role in decision-making, planning, coordinating and conducting security operations.
As the Afghan forces assume the lead role, the coalition troops move towards an advisory and supportive role.
Phase I, which was completed on July 24, 2011 with the handover of Panjshir province to Afghan security forces, included the following regions:-
Kabul province, with the exception of Surobi district
Herat city (capital of Herat province)
Lashkar Gah (capital of Helmand province)
Mazar-e-Sharif (capital of Balkh province)
Mehtar Lam (capital of Laghman province).
The Afghan government announced Phase II on November 27, 2011, which is expected to continue well into 2013. Phases I and II together make for the area inhabited by 50 per cent of the Afghan population. The areas included in the second tranche of transition are:
• The provinces of Balkh, Daykundi, Takhar, Samangan, Nimroz and the remainder of Kabul province.
• The cities of Jalalabad, Chaghcharan (Ghor province), Sheberghan (Jawzjan province), Feyzabad (Badakhshan province), Ghazni (Ghazni province), Maidan Shar (Wardak province) and Qala-e-Now (Badghis province).
The districts of:
• Yaftal Safli, Arghanj, Baharak, Tashkan, Keshem and Argu in Badakhshan province
• Abkamari in Badghis province
• Nawah and Nad-e-Ali in Helmand province
• All districts of Herat province except for Shindand district, Obi and Chisht Sharif.
• Qarghai in Laghman province
• Behsud, Quskunar and Sorkhrud districts of Nangarhar province
• All districts of Parwan province except for Shiwari and Siahgherd
• All districts of Sar-e-Pul province except for Sayyad
• Districts of first part of Behsud, Jelriz and centre of Behsud in Wardak province.
While the second phase was still in progress, President Hamid Karzai on May 13, 2012 announced the third part of the handover covering provinces of Uruzgan, Kapisa and Parwan and some of the other parts of the provinces like Helmand where transition had begun in earlier phases.
Together the first three phases cover 11 of the 34 provinces in Afghanistan.
The first two phases were relatively easier, while the process would become more challenging from third stage onwards.
Stages IV and V have not been announced yet. But, given NATO’s new deadline of putting the Afghans in lead role by 2013 it is expected that the penultimate and the final parts would be announced by the start of middle of next year.
The explanation from NATO for what appears to be a rush through the process is that for transition to complete by end of 2014, the Afghan security forces must be in lead role sometime in 2013. The NATO experience shows that it may take another year to year-and-a-half to fully withdraw from the combat role.
In a rather upbeat assessment of the progress in transition, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen in an Op-Ed for The Telegraph on October 22 wrote:
“The transfer of security responsibility has acquired real momentum. It is being managed carefully, step by step. It is well advanced in Kabul, Herat in the west and Mazar-e-Sharif in the north, where we traveled. There, Afghan troops and police are in the lead for security. Indeed, they have the lead for security in areas where three quarters of the Afghan population lives – and in those areas, the security situation has remained stable or improved.”
Mr Rasmussen further noted that during his recent most visit to Afghanistan he had noted among the Afghan leadership a “clear sense of their determination to make transition a success”.
A more cautious assessment has been given by ISAF Strategic Transition Group, according to which the first two phases have proceeded well, but there could be challenges as the process moves into the third stage.
Alongside the handover of the security responsibilities, the Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) have also begun shifting their focus from direct delivery to strengthening the capacity of the local authorities.
With the completion of the transition process, ISAF expects to have also completed transfer of all functions of PRTs to the government, NGOs and private sector.
The Challenges Ahead:
The biggest and the foremost challenge is that, despite temporary setbacks; motivation, resource base and tactical ability of the Taliban remains intact. Moreover, the insurgents are not too keen about a negotiated settlement of the issue.
A leaked NATO report titled ‘State of Taliban 2012’ had given a somewhat similar reading: “Despite numerous tactical setbacks, surrender is far from their collective mindset. For the moment, they believe that continuing the fight and expanding Taliban governance are their only viable courses of action.”
The situation does not augur well for the end game being envisioned for the war ravaged country as Taliban and other militant factions instead of engaging in a meaningful dialogue are more interested in seeing the coalition forces off. It isn’t only a strategic calculation of the Taliban leadership, but ordinary people in Afghanistan are reportedly thinking alike as a result of which Taliban ranks, in some areas, are swelling in anticipation of their return to power.
There are several reasons for the apparent advantage being enjoyed by the Taliban. First of all their resource supply infrastructure has largely remained unaffected. Secondly, corruption and poor governance by the Afghan government is creating a feeling of disenchantment among the general public, who then look towards the Taliban as an alternative. And thirdly there is hardly any tangible incentive being offered to the Taliban for joining the national reconciliation. Afghan government and the High Peace Council, which is driving the process, lack consensus on how to proceed with the peace talks and whom to reach out to.
“In the last year there has been unprecedented interest, even from Government of Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GIRoA) members, in joining the insurgent cause. Afghan civilians frequently prefer Taliban governance over GIRoA, usually as a result of government corruption, ethnic bias and lack of connection with local religious and tribal leaders. The effectiveness of Taliban governance allows for increased recruitment rates which, subsequently, bolsters their ability to replace losses,” the leaked NATO report had stated.
Setting of 2014 deadline for pull-out by NATO due to domestic compulsions of the ISAF troops contributing countries hardly helped the cause.
The Taliban look pretty confident that Afghan security forces would not be strong enough to hold on to the areas coalition forces would handover to them. They have in fact already started testing the capacity of the local troops as shown by some of the recent insurgent attacks.
There is hardly any doubt that the Taliban, at present, are interested in any sort of political engagement because their attitude towards some of the initiatives in recent past showed that they were primarily readying themselves for post-2014 Afghanistan.
Deepening ethnic divide due to politics of patronage is another challenge.
Governance and development do not inspire much hope either. At the root of all these problems is the rampant corruption in the public sector. It is argued that there is little hope of things improving in the near future. Presidential elections slated for spring of 2014 don’t hold out any real prospects of a change. It is widely speculated that President Karzai’s brother Abdul Qayyum would replace him in the presidency – something being implied as continuity of the existence style of governance.
Other than creating sympathy for Taliban, corruption would have far-reaching consequences for the Afghan society that may need foreign assistance for significantly long time.
International community may have pledged $16 billion for the next four years for economic development of Afghanistan, but realization of those promises is subject to several conditions including ending corruption, improving governance standards and establishing rule of law.
The Afghan government is not alone to be blamed for poor governance and lack of development. The thrust of ISAF forces has all along been on security and not improving governance.
The coalition till 2011 spent $444 billion on war, while only $47 billion were made available in development assistance to the country ruined by war – much of which was siphoned off because of absence of strong checks.
Afghan security forces may be growing and improving, but there are questions regarding their sustainability and equipping them adequately. There is hardly any clarity about what would happen beyond the four years for which the international community has committed $4.6 billion per annum. This question is particularly important because Afghanistan, as of today, does not have enough resources to be able to foot such a massive defence bill.
Insider attacks, what’s more commonly known as green on blue attacks, pose the other major challenge as international forces plan to leave. The blue print for the transition process was that Afghans would take over the lead role, while the foreign troops would switch over to advisory and training support for building the capacity of the local troops. However, sudden surge in insider attacks, attributed mostly to personal grievances of the Afghan soldiers against their mentors, has led to the suspension of the trainings. Professional standards of the soldiers may fall if this suspension continues for a prolonged period. Already, reports about none of the Afghan battalions being able to operate independently are anything but comforting.
Such attacks have been happening since 2003, but got the media spotlight this year because of sudden spike. About 118 casualties have been reported so far (since 2003), almost half of them this year.
Deaths of soldiers because of insider attacks was always a cause of concern, but recent most incidents of Afghans killing their colleagues and seniors in the forces is shocking – it would only compound the problems.
The insider attacks and the resulting casualties, other than having a demoralizing impact on the foreign troops serving in Afghanistan and adding to distrust between them and the local soldiers, has started to further weaken the political support for the war in troops contributing countries.
Role of Taliban infiltration in these attacks may not all that be significant, but they have been used by the insurgents as a psychological and propaganda tool to suggest to the Afghan public, where literacy rate is dismal 28 per cent, that the tide of the war was turning in their favour.
Equally disconcerting are the rivalries between Afghan army, the police and other security services.
The global economic slowdown coupled with loss of public interest in countries contributing to ISAF operations have been the major deciding factors behind what apparently looks to be the rush to exits.
Two major European military powers, UK and France, did not increase their defence spending. They are instead cutting public expenditure to reduce their respective budget deficits.
US economy is also under pressure. Should Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential candidate win, the US defence budget may go up but the Republicans may still not want to go for another military surge in Afghanistan due to erosion of domestic appetite.
Pakistan’s role in the peace process has always been considered as critical due to the historical cultural, religious and ethnical linkages between Pashtuns residing on both sides of the border, Pakistan hosting millions of Afghan refugees for a long time, many of whom are still here, and the relationship Taliban leadership had with Islamabad while in power before 2001.
However, the current unease in Pak-Afghan bilateral relations, due to presence of terrorist sanctuaries in each other’s territory, cross border raids by militants into Pakistan, high profile Taliban attacks inside Afghanistan and unfilled Afghan expectations of Islamabad’s help in bringing the insurgents to the negotiating table, is proving to be a major impediment in way of taking the political process forward.
Pakistan, Afghanistan and the US had in April this year set up two groups to provide safe passage to the reconcilable Taliban and delisting the leaders agreeing on reconciliation from the UN Security Council sanctions list.
The group on safe passage met in September and left it to Pakistan and Afghanistan to discuss the modalities. However, no progress could be made because of the pending visit of High Peace Council chief Salahuddin Rabbani to Pakistan for the talks.
Pakistan government had earlier launched an appeal for all militant groups to join the intra-Afghan dialogue. The two countries had in 2011 also set up a joint commission for peace and reconciliation.
But, on the ground there has been little forward movement due to the lingering mistrust between the two and perhaps because of Kabul’s bloated expectations of how much Pakistan can help. Islamabad did have certain level of influence over the Taliban, but that has gradually diminished over the years. Today Taliban are skeptical about Pakistan’s role and may not be willing to do Islamabad’s bidding.
The proposed Pak-Afghan Strategic Agreement, which is being midwifed by the West, may help by providing for enhanced military to military and intelligence to intelligence contacts through which the two sides may be able to deal with some of the core issues bedeviling their relationship.
The huge logistic exercise for taking back the military hardware that has accumulated in Afghanistan over the past decade of war on terror has not been able to get the attention of the Pakistani media which remained obsessed with the closing and reopening of Ground Lines of Communications – more commonly called NATO supply routes – through Pakistan in the aftermath of November 2011 Salala incident.
The task of removing the war gear from Afghanistan is cumbersome because Afghanistan is a landlocked country and the equipment would have to be shipped out via Pakistan or the Northern Distribution Network (NDN). US/NATO has already struck a memorandum of understanding with Pakistan, while some of the agreements relate to the NDN.
The numbers are simply formidable. Exact details of how much equipment the US would be taking out may still not be known, but the very fact that they would be spending about $30 billion on shipments gives a fair idea.
According to a research paper prepared for the British parliament, UK, the second highest ISAF troops contributing country, would be taking out 11,000 containers and around 3,000 armoured vehicles while Germany will be bringing back more than 1,700 vehicles, howitzers and tanks.
The French withdrawal plan involves repatriating military equipment including 900 armoured vehicles and over 1,000 containers.
It is evident that some of the inventories would be handed over to the Afghan security forces. But, any decision on what has to be left behind would be challenging one for a variety of reasons including the fear of that equipment, all of which is state of the art and best of its kind available with armies around the world, falling in the hands of Taliban; the ability of the Afghan forces to maintain that equipment; and the resources required for their sustainability.
If history was to serve as any indicator, the withdrawal would be far more complex than anyone could imagine. The Brits, while pulling out in 1842 lost thousands of soldiers, while the Soviets in 1989 had to struggle for months moving out, losing lives of dozens of its soldiers in the process.
Withdrawing without a political settlement could be very tricky. The convoys and the troops guarding them could be vulnerable to Taliban attacks while moving out of Afghanistan. The only other option left with the coalition forces would be to bribe local commanders for the safety of their consignments and the men accompanying them. According to a conservative estimate Taliban commanders are already earning up to $144 million per annum as protection money for (in-bound) NATO supplies passing through the areas controlled by them.
Implications for the Region:
Though several scenarios have been drawn for post-2014 Afghanistan, the most plausible one, in the absence of an imminent political deal, is that of protracted unrest and continuing instability. The reason being that no one expects Afghan security forces to dislodge the Taliban from their strongholds, from where even NATO would have failed to evict them. Therefore, it is logical to expect a long-term stalemate.
This anarchy, if it happens, would be destabilizing for the entire region, more particularly for Pakistan.
But, the drawdown plans are inherently flawed in that they are Afghanistan specific and do not look at the situation from the regional perspective.
Afghanistan’s both immediate and far neighbours have stakes in peaceful and stable Afghanistan. However, because of divergent interests these neighbours are often at cross-purposes competing for influence and often undermining the prospects of peace.
NATO’s exit strategy should therefore have looked at the regional dynamics and addressed the concerns of various players so that they could positively contribute to the peace efforts.
Other than the feared security fallout, instability in Afghanistan would have serious economic repercussions for the region.
Important regional players in Afghanistan include India, Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, China, Russia and Turkey.
India has traditionally had strong relations with Afghanistan. It has been trying to rebuild its influence in the country since the fall of Taliban and has provided generous assistance to reconstruction and development projects, besides investing in mining and steel industry. India has also been involved in training Afghan intelligence and security forces and has signed Strategic Partnership Agreement with Afghanistan. Trade between India and Afghanistan has been growing.
India’s interest in Afghanistan has two basic objectives – first to counter Pakistani influence and secondly to access Central Asian market for trade and energy.
Pakistan’s future is intertwined with that of Afghanistan. Pakistan has been a significant regional donor for Afghanistan and had at Tokyo Conference in July this year pledged $20 million assistance for Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). Bilateral trade between the two countries has grown significantly and the two are expecting to have Strategic Partnership Agreement next year.
However, strategic differences have continued to create hurdles in growth of ties. It is feared that an unstable Afghanistan could lead to influx of refugees, intensify extremism and militancy in Pakistan, aggravate the problem of narcotics, and further debilitate the already ailing economy.
Iran’s agenda in Afghanistan is primarily anti-US. Tehran has strong linkages with Tajiks and Hazaras, but has also maintained close linkages with Taliban to hurt American interests. Iran has been expanding its sphere of influence in Afghanistan.
Iran’s long-term objectives are to counter narcotics and use Afghanistan as an energy corridor for reaching China.
Tehran also shares Beijing’s concerns of long-term US presence in the region.
Saudi Arabia enjoys ideological influence over Taliban and has tried to use that for reconciliation between Karzai government and the fighters.
There are apprehensions that Iran, India and Russia may form an alliance because of their convergences on Afghanistan. In such an eventuality Saudi Arabia could back Pakistan.
China maintains a modest aid portfolio in Afghanistan and has stakes in oil and gas exploration, communications and copper mining. Beijing is wary of Taliban’s return to power, but has kept itself away from security affairs of Afghanistan.
China also eyes Afghanistan as a route for tapping into energy-rich Central Asia and Iran.
Russia fears that unstable Afghanistan could spread militancy to Central Asia and the narco-trade may increase.
It is apprehensive of both Taliban returning to power and US maintaining bases. Moscow is therefore interested in a moderate and stable Afghanistan. And it was in this context that it (Moscow) started rebuilding ties with Pakistan.
Turkey has reinforced its influence in Afghanistan and has its troops taking care of security in Kabul. Istanbul Process is working for a secure, stable and prosperous Afghanistan in a secure and stable region. Besides, Turkey has a trilateral engagement with Pakistan and Afghanistan.