Leaving Afghanistan

by Charles Naas

Editor’s note: Mr. Naas is a retired Foreign Service Officer who served 4 years in Afghanistan during better times.

President Obama has announced that the United States will withdraw its troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014. Massive amounts of equipment are already en route back to bases in this country. On Jan. 11, Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai visited Washington to meet with President Obama and to hammer out understandings that will guide both countries in 2013 and into 2014. Photos of the two leaders’ reveal few smiles; the future of Afghanistan is at stake. Now, in the eleventh year of US efforts to destroy al Qaeda, help Afghan leaders defeat the Taliban insurgency and create the conditions for a stable government and basic security, we are facing the end game of our commitments.

The early January discussion centered essentially on a number of key security matters related to our planned withdrawal:

– the pace of Western force withdrawal and the size of the forces, if any, to remain in Afghanistan for the indefinite future;

– the training of Afghan troops and police, particularly village police;

– the combat role, if any, of western forces and a definition of the legal status of the troops who carry out these remaining tasks; we seek legal immunity for our forces, which Karzai finds difficult to accept (in Iraq, Nouri al-Maliki could not accept this and the US military role thus essentially ended);

– a further significant issue to be settled is the role of the small remaining training cadre in emergency combat situations such as when training missions face superior Taliban units.

As the two presidents looked ahead with trepidation on the face of one party and resolve on the other’s, history hung heavily on them. In the past forty years, Afghanistan has had no sustained period of peace nor a strong sense of national unity and purpose. The coup by a coterie of domestic communists and young military officers in 1973 and the removal of the monarchy started the long down hill course of the Afghan people. There followed the Soviet invasion in 1979, the resistance to the Soviets by the mujahiddin (tribal/anti-communist groups) who were aided by the US, and the withdrawal of the Soviet troops in 1989, followed by the long civil war from which the Taliban emerged as preeminent. The Taliban enforced an extremist Islam and provided a sanctuary for al Qaeda that led to US intervention following the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers on September 11,2001.

In the decade that has followed, over 2,000 Americans have been killed and in excess of 18,000 have been wounded in fighting the Taliban and allied tribal units based in Pakistan. Peak strength of US forces was slightly over 101,000 in 2011. The cost of the war has been estimated at about one trillion dollars. What have we gained from this very sizable investment?

Actually, quite a lot has been achieved. A new central government was established by our government and allied western powers, a reasonably fair election has been held and President Karzai has so far pledged to observe the restriction of a two term presidency. A government exists in all the provinces, although some in Taliban areas in the southern and eastern parts of the country are under continuing stress. A fairly free press has been established. Many critical roads have been rebuilt and new ones reach into areas never before provided with the means of transportation. Schools, some for girls, as well as medical facilities, have also been constructed. Some of the greatest strides have occurred in the realm of communications; computers, cell phones, email, social media etc. have gained a solid footing. Millions of Afghans have returned from Pakistan and Iran where they had taken refuge during either the Soviet or civil war periods. Perhaps most important for the long term has been the discovery of vast mineral resources in the nation, including huge amounts of lithium, which is a vital component in batteries. One source reportedly noted that Afghanistan could be the Saudi Arabia of lithium. Finally, a national army of over 300,000 is receiving training from US and other western military forces.

Unfortunately, much of the above has a big BUT after it. The nation is still seriously divided by tribal and ethnic rivalries that existed long before I was there a few decades ago. The army, after extensive training, still has only a few units able to take on the Taliban who, although having suffered serious casualties, have endured and have important assets in major cities and provinces, including those to the north of the Hindu Kush. The porous border with Pakistan has not ben sealed and the tribes provide a terribly important place for rest, resupply and training in new armaments. Efforts to negotiate some sort of political solution with the Taliban have not produced important results as yet and it appears that the Taliban are determined to wait out our departure and attempt a return as we steadily reduce our forces. Perhaps the most significant development over time is the increasing friction between our two peoples at the street level. We are, I am told, more and more frequently viewed as another occupier like so many that have preceded us. Ongoing green on brown casualties are a painful reminder that perhaps already we have just stayed too long.

Looking ahead to the period after 2014 and to that leading up to our departure, we can expect severe disorder at times and threats to any hope for Afghan stability.

– We can expect a slight revival of al Qaeda, which has lost dozens of its leaders and as an organization has spread and is now concentrated in East and North Africa and the Yemen. It will continue to be a militant force in the Pakistan tribal areas and in a position to cooperate with some of Pakistan’s indigenous Islamist extremists.

– The Taliban have been badly hurt in clashes with US troops but are still a strong, essentially Afghan insurgency that must be a part of future political accommodation.

– Domestic ethnic/tribal rivalries will be a way of life and at any time can erupt into violence; all the hatreds of the civil war have not been reconciled.

– There is a definite danger that Afghanistan will be the cock pit of regional rivalries. Pakistan views the country as part of its strategic defense depth against India and India in turn is increasing its presence and aid programs to counter Pakistan. For many years Iran has considered western Afghanistan an area of special interest and has had a large presence. The substantial Shi’ite population, roughly 15-20%, are considered to be a ward of Iran.

– Afghanistan’s mineral wealth will attract many countries and that will have negative as well as positive consequences.

Our direct interests in Afghanistan are limited but the above factors will keep American diplomacy busy. The temptation to yet again get deeply involved will also contribute to great divisions here at home over America’s international role.

Photo: President Barack Obama and President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan deliver remarks at the White House in Washington, D.C., on May 12, 2010. White House Photo.

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.