Dealing with Defeat in Afghanistan

by Charles Naas

President Barack Obama and the United Nations have again warned President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan that, unless he signs a bilateral security agreement, which gives all foreign troops complete immunity from Afghan law, these troops will be withdrawn at the end of the year. To do so would leave the Afghan military, a force that now numbers over 300,000, without further western training programs, especially in the maintenance of modern equipment, infantry/special forces tactics and communications but still facing a continued Taliban  opposition.

Last year the Loya Jirga, a traditional body of eminent tribal leaders including many from Pashtun areas along the border with Pakistan — the center of Afghan Taliban strength — recommended approval of the agreement, but Karzai said the President who takes over after the April election should be responsible for an action with such long-term consequences. He has withstood allied pressure for over a year and relations between the western allies and the Afghan government are gravely frayed. Karzai’s action may seem on the surface self-defeating in light of the military’s continued need for assistance, but lets go more deeply into his dilemma.

Over 100,000 American and allied forces have been in Afghanistan for over a decade and there has been heavy fighting in localized areas with substantial civilian casualties. We have used our highly aggressive Special Forces and drones that have had some success militarily but frequently produced civilian losses. Regardless, the Taliban usually move back in once the foreign forces depart and reportedly have a strong presence in over half of the provinces. There is no sign that the struggle is near a successful conclusion. The on-again, off-again political negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban — aimed at finding political compromises — have apparently made little progress.

Perhaps more important is that the country has become highly divided politically over the US presence. We have poured billions of dollars into our efforts to modernize parts of the country, which includes military expenditures, Afghanistan’s educational and legal systems, and its roads and medical facilities. Following the draconian rule by the Taliban, much of this aid was welcomed by major parts of the population but it also deepened the gulf between the traditional rural tribal society and the urban population. The latter have borne the brunt of the daily presence of road blocks, convoys roaring through the streets and suicide bombings. The villages have been subjected to intrusive and terrifying night raids often directed by faulty intelligence. Not to mention the fact that many of the US-led reforms in Afghan society have violate religious beliefs and long-held customs.

In Afghanistan, a nation weary from the current conflict as well as its long civil war and resistance to the Soviet Union, the US is looked upon by many as the occupier, the enemy. Karzai recognizes this fact and has been responsive by criticizing many aspects of our use of arms and refusing to sign the agreement. Any leader in Afghanistan is also cognizant of the historical fate of those who have been identified with the presence of foreign forces. All the important communist leaders who came to power as a result of the 1973 coup and the Soviet invasion met dire fates.

It’s a rough and tough country and, contrary to our own society, history is a living and breathing thing. The Afghan leaders are also fully aware that in Iran a status of forces agreement caused massive demonstrations and marked the political emergence of Ayatollah Khomeini. Karzai may have simply had enough of us and his domestic burdens.

With his warnings, President Obama has established a politically defensible basis for ending the US presence in Afghanistan and implementing a full withdrawal at the end of this year; that may well be his purpose.

But, would a status of forces agreement, which cannot be signed until the security agreement is finalized, and the retention of 3-10,000 troops ensure Afghanistan’s prosperity? Very unlikely. Whoever is elected as the new Afghan president must continue to deal with a Taliban that has shown little inclination to bargain seriously, cope with all the ethnic and cultural tensions that beset that country and depend economically on foreign assistance.

Let us not expect the victory parade. We can at least hope that the activities of  the remnants al-Qaeda, the reason we first invaded the country, will be minimized and that, as in years past, the country can slog along day-to-day. The Pakistan government has announced a military intervention into its part of the tribal area but, unless it is very substantial and near permanent, the impact in Afghanistan will be years in coming.

As one who values dearly his four years served in that country several decades ago, I deeply regret my pessimism.

Charles Naas

Charles Naas was Deputy Ambassador and Charge d'Affairs in Tehran during the initial stages of Iran's revolution. Preceding that he was Director of Iranian Affairs and served also in Pakistan, India, Turkey, Afghanistan, as the ME advisor at the US's UN delegation, and retired from The Policy Planning Staff.


One Comment

  1. With all the experience that this adventure has produced, it baffles the imagination as to why no one seems to get anything right. One country may have the strongest, modern, up to date weapon systems, even the personnel to go with it, along with the money too, but just how long does the occupation last and just what kinds of results are attained? The one given in these modern times, infrastructure is destroyed, with questionable replacements, plus the death & displacement of the civilian population. Also, lest we forget, the exploitation of said countries resource[s], natural or otherwise. In the case of Afghanistan, the “Opium Poppy”. I wonder, has anyone tallied of the profits made, during the 12 + years of war there? I would venture that it far exceeds the costs of the war in terms of return. Bleed them to the last drop, how addicting power is, so hard to give up.

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