Afghanistan: Trapped in Uncertainty

22 june 2011

Ten Years of War Have Not Made the Future of the Country Any Clearer

Omar Nessar is Director of the Center for Contemporary Afghan Studies (CISA), Editor-in-Chief of afghanistan.ru.

Resume: An early withdrawal of foreign troops can destabilize the situation in Afghanistan and radicalize the entire region. On the other hand, NATO’s continued presence will strain Washington’s relations with Moscow, Beijing and Tehran. Worse still, if the present situation of uncertainty persists, it will prevent all the players involved from working out an effective pattern of behavior.

This autumn, the U.S. and NATO will mark a decade since the beginning of the operation in Afghanistan. The allied presence in Afghanistan has proved to be even more protracted than the presence of the “limited contingent” of Soviet troops in the country in 1979-1989 (the Soviet Union pulled out after nine years, one month and nineteen days). The course and results of the decade-long war is a subject of emotional debates in the U.S. and many other countries in the world. Twenty-two years after the last Soviet solider left the Afghan soil, a pullout of foreign troops is again on the agenda. The key question is: How and when do the NATO forces intend to wrap up their Afghan mission?

WAYS OF RETREAT

Safety of the logistics infrastructure near the Hindu Kush has become a major criterion in choosing strategic partners for the U.S.-led coalition that is fighting the Taliban. Experts estimate that NATO had shipped 85 percent of its cargoes via Pakistan (“the southern transit corridor”) before 2009.

Cargo transit became not just a prime source of income for Islamabad, but also a political lever which Pakistan exploited to put pressure on Kabul, Washington and Brussels. Naturally, the Western allies sought to reduce their dependence of their self-willed “strategic ally.” In addition, it became obvious back in the mid-2000s that the elimination of the Taliban and al Qaeda logistics infrastructure, located outside the country, mostly in the northwestern provinces of Pakistan, was crucial for achieving a breakthrough in the Afghan situation.

In 2008, the Western coalition announced plans to send reinforcements to the southern regions of Afghanistan bordering Pakistan to conduct large-scale anti-Taliban operations. This resulted in an increased pressure on the logistics network for the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). In the first half of 2008, the Taliban and their allies stepped up terrorist attacks on key transport routes in southern and eastern Afghanistan (the towns of Kandahar and Jalalabad), by which military cargos, fuels and lubricants were supplied from Pakistan. A major Taliban attack on March 23, 2008 showed how vulnerable ground transit was. The attack prompted the U.S. and NATO military command to start work on the establishment of a Northern Distribution Network through Russia and several Central Asian republics.

On April 4, 2008, NATO reached agreement with Russia on a northern transit corridor to support operations in Afghanistan. The agreement provided for the supply of cargos through Russia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. However, it took much time before the corridor was opened. The White House hoped to reduce Moscow’s role, considering strained relations between the two countries at the time, especially after the Five-Day War in the Caucasus in August 2008.

In 2009-2010, General David Petraeus (the Commander of the U.S. Central Command at the time and now the Commander of the U.S. and ISAF forces in Afghanistan) repeatedly visited Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, preparing the ground for cargo transit deals with all the above states, which are members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization.

After the change of power in the United States, the Russian and U.S. leaders, Dmitry Medvedev and Barack Obama, signed an agreement in July 2009 on air/ground military transit to Afghanistan. Earlier, Russia had concluded cargo transit accords with Germany, France and Spain. In late February 2011, the Russian parliament ratified an intergovernmental agreement that allowed the United States to transport personnel and equipment across Russian territory to supply U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan. On March 9, the Russian president signed the agreement into law.

The northern corridor is viewed as the main exit for the future withdrawal of the coalition forces. According to experts, it was initially assumed that the bulk of the U.S. forces would withdraw via Uzbekistan. It has been reported recently that Turkmenistan is an option, too. However, transport routes to the Turkmen border run through the troublesome southern and southwestern Afghan provinces. Also, the transport infrastructure in the west and south of Afghanistan is not as developed as in the north. The Uzbek corridor looks more attractive also because in 2010 Afghanistan completed the construction of a railroad linking the town of Hairatan on the border with Uzbekistan and Mazar-i-Sharif, the capital of the northern province of Balkh. Many specialists believe that, although the Uzbek direction might become a priority for overland withdrawal, Turkmenistan will become the main air transit point.

Regardless of which routes are used, the withdrawal might take three to four years, or even longer, according to the U.S. military and politicians. The U.S. may need new temporary military and air bases for logistics support, as well as other military infrastructure facilities in former Soviet republics, which might become permanent over time.

There are no doubts that during the withdrawal, Washington will seek to secure alternative transport corridors to avoid dependence on certain states. It is not accidental that at the “northern corridor” talks in 2008-2009, the U.S. insisted on concluding separate bilateral accords with transit countries and dismissed calls for working out a common deal. In addition, there remains the “southern corridor” – across the Afghan-Pakistani border and Pakistan. It is a risky route, but it can be used in certain conditions, for example, for evacuating heavy equipment by sea (through Pakistani ports).

THE GEOGRAPHY OF INSTABILITY

The “northern corridor” helped the U.S. and NATO overcome Islamabad’s transport monopoly and step up activities near the Afghan-Pakistani border. However, the introduction of the new route provoked the emergence of new challenges for the regional security system, which have worsened the military-political situation in the previously calm northern Afghan provinces. The alliance henceforth has to fight the Taliban not only on the southern front, as was the case before 2009, but also on the northern one.

In the north, the Taliban are mostly active in areas densely populated by Pashtun tribes, for example in Kunduz. Hezb-e-Islami is another anti-government organization operating in the north. The situation in that part of the country is rather complicated. For example, Afghan President Hamid Karzai made an unexpected statement in October 2009, alleging that the Afghan authorities had information about unidentified helicopters flying armed militants to the north of the country. The first such reports allegedly came in May 2009. Several days after Karzai’s statement, Kunduz Province Governor Mohammad Omar said that some Taliban commanders had been making contacts with Britons via Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).

Until 2009, the relatively quiet northern provinces had been the responsibility zone of predominantly German forces. However, the growing instability in the region and the German forces’ inability to maintain order there prompted the U.S. to deploy its troops in the north. According to Afghan media reports, the strength of the U.S. force in the Kunduz Province (which borders Tajikistan) reached 5,000 by July 2010. U.S. troops were deployed in other northern provinces, as well. Simultaneously, the U.S. stepped up diplomatic activity in the north, and the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry, made frequent visits to the area. In 2010, the U.S. opened a consulate general in Mazar-i-Sharif, which came as an important political landmark and which indicated Washington’s growing interest in the entire region to the north of the Afghan borders.

Immediately after Nowruz (a national spring festival), Karzai named towns where security control would be handed over to Afghan forces, including Mazar-i-Sharif. However, the April 1, 2011 events in Mazar-i-Sharif, where a crowd of protesters attacked the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan compound and brutally killed foreign personnel, put these plans into question. The tragedy showed that it is religious leaders – mullahs and imams – that hold sway in the country. The riot erupted after a Mazar-i-Sharif mullah told worshippers during a Friday prayer that “hundreds” of Quran copies had been burned in the U.S.

If the Afghan military and their Western partners fail to reverse the situation in the north of the country in the near future, the region will see a new stage of instability. Specialists have warned that the radical forces that operate in the “Kunduz bridgehead” will eventually move into neighboring states. Such forecasts began to be taken seriously after a series of Islamist attacks on law-enforcement officers in neighboring Tajikistan in the spring of 2010. In February 2011, Tajik President Emomali Rahmon told the police to tighten control over mosques and religious schools, including illegal ones, which, he said, extremists used increasingly often to promote their ideology.

LEAVING IN ORDER TO STAY?

In 2002-2010, a relatively stable security system developed in Afghanistan, with the U.S. and NATO military presence as the key element. Despite the obvious problems facing the mission, it is regarded as a major resource of stability in the entire Central Asian region. The White House’s decision, announced in late 2009, to begin withdrawing the U.S. troops from the country in July 2011 has created an atmosphere of uncertainty. The deadline for the withdrawal has been set for 2014, when Afghanistan’s national security forces are expected to become capable of fighting their enemies on their own. However, no one can guarantee that this will happen within this timeframe.

Of course, not everyone believes in an early withdrawal of the U.S. troops. Some have valid reasons to assume that President Obama’s statement was meant to placate American society which had grown tired of the Afghan war, with an increasing number of Americans calling for a withdrawal. Another reason to doubt the seriousness of the U.S. authorities’ statement was a sensational revelation made by Afghan President Karzai in early February 2011. Two weeks after his first official visit to Moscow, Karzai said that Kabul and Washington were in talks over a possible deployment of permanent U.S. bases in Afghanistan. The mechanism for the deployment is expected to be spelled out in a bilateral strategic partnership agreement, which Karzai said was in the works.

The president claimed that the decision on U.S. bases depended on Afghan lawmakers and the Loya Jirga (a national forum of tribal elders), but he also made it clear that Afghanistan’s “economic prosperity” depended on Kabul’s further cooperation with Washington. Several days later, Minister of Defense Abdul Rahim Wardak voiced his support for the idea of permanent military bases as “guarantors of stability” in the region. General Wardak pointed out that U.S. bases had brought stability to many countries, above all South Korea, Germany and Japan.

The issue of military bases may cause tensions between Moscow and Washington, which would affect their cargo transit cooperation. In late February 2011, Russia’s ambassador to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, questioned the possibility of ground transit of U.S. military cargoes through Russian territory. The statement was in sharp contrast to earlier assurances of the reliability of the Russian-U.S. transit accords. Supposedly, Rogozin’s remarks were a response to the reports about the U.S. plans to set up permanent bases in Afghanistan. A few days later, officials close to the U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan said it was too early to make conclusions regarding military bases in the territory of Afghanistan. Meanwhile, almost simultaneously, Ambassador Eikenberry supported the idea of bases as a guarantee of effective counteraction against the Taliban.

The U.S. may deploy its bases in three to five Afghan towns – Bagram, Shindand, Kandahar (where powerful facilities have already been built), as well as in Jalalabad and Mazar-i-Sharif. However, the initial statement about bases was meant to sound the reaction of other states. For example, after the Russian Foreign Ministry questioned the need for permanent U.S. military bases in Afghanistan, Karzai softened his stance: “The view of our neighboring countries is important. We’re not living on an island.”

Moscow’s negative reaction came as a surprise for a significant part of the Afghan elite. The policy of “reset” in Russian-U.S. relations, the coincidence of Moscow’s and Washington’s views on many aspects of settlement, their support for Hamid Karzai at the 2009 presidential election, a joint anti-drug trafficking operation in Afghanistan, and the change in the Kremlin’s policy towards Iran – all these factors were taken as signs of accord between the two great states. Before Karzai’s visit to the Russian capital in January 2011, many Afghans had had an impression that Washington was becoming the key mediator between Moscow and Kabul. Therefore, few Afghans expected a negative Russian response to the idea of preserving U.S. bases in Afghanistan.

A Russian Security Council delegation, led by Nikolai Patrushev, visited Kabul in mid-March 2011. Russia offered Afghanistan the status of observer in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Previously, Afghanistan participated in SCO meetings as a guest. Kabul took Moscow’s surprising move to raise Afghanistan’s status in the prestigious regional organization as an attempt to put the brakes on the plans to set up permanent U.S. military bases in Afghanistan.

Moscow’s foreign-policy moves in late March-early April showed its increased interest in the Afghanistan issue. Well-known diplomat Zamir Kabulov was appointed the Russian president’s special representative for Afghanistan. Moscow then hosted consultations on regional security, which involved deputy foreign ministers of the SCO member states and observer countries and Afghanistan. According to Afghan diplomats, the discussions focused on the future of Afghanistan.

However, reports that came from Kabul after the Moscow consultations indicated that Russia’s attempts to secure the freezing of the plans to deploy U.S. bases had failed. On April 10, Karzai announced the completion of work on a strategic partnership agreement with Washington. The Afghan president reiterated that the decision would now depend on the Loya Jirga, which would consider the document within the next three months. Afghanistan will need really strong and convincing arguments for saying no to the Americans. The promise of observer status or even membership in the SCO may prove insufficient.

A WITHDRAWAL AS A THREAT OF AFGHANISTAN’S DISINTEGRATION

In 2008, ahead of the presidential election campaign, Karzai began to mold his new image, seeking to avoid being viewed as an American protégé. The main element of Karzai’s “rebranding” was his anti-U.S. statements amid the soaring civilian death toll from coalition attacks on the Taliban. From time to time, the Afghan leader would give courtesy to other major players. For example, calling for stepping up the modernization of the Afghan army, Karzai said: “If the U.S. does not help us with tanks and planes, we’ll get them in some other place.” His words evoked a wide response in society. Many people thought he hinted at Russia. Some analysts concluded that the Afghan president was trying to pattern his behavior on some Afghan leaders of the past, such as Mohammed Daoud Khan, who succeeded in balancing between the West and the East.

However, unlike the period of Daoud Khan’s rule, the East (i.e. Eurasian countries) does not seem to be ready for “investing” in Afghanistan. Afghan politicians opposed to long-term U.S. military presence in the country emphasize that it does not meet the region’s interests. Interestingly, countries in the region (except Iran) have not responded to this in any way; in other words, they do not agree with this statement. Also, Kabul never saw a coordinated position on the Afghanistan issue from the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

The last time the SCO made a clear statement on the issue was in July 2005, when the SCO adopted a declaration urging Washington to set a timeframe for the withdrawal of its troops from Afghanistan. The declaration emphasized that their presence in the country was only due to the counterterrorist campaign. At the time, all SCO member states were highly concerned over U.S. political expansion in the post-Soviet space, which peaked in a series of “color” revolutions, including the government overthrow in Kyrgyzstan and the uprising in Uzbekistan’s Andizhan. However, the situation has changed since then; the United States has decreased its activity; and Central Asia now views the threat of instability that may materialize after NATO’s withdrawal from Afghanistan as more significant than the risks posed by continued U.S. military presence. The positions of major SCO members (Russia and China) and observers (India) remain vague. Vladimir Putin, who participated in a meeting of the SCO heads of government in November 2010, hinted at an obvious lack of coordination on this issue.

Tehran acts as a counterbalance to the U.S. influence. Iranian Interior Minister Mostafa Mohammad Najjar during his visit to Kabul in March 2011 spoke sharply against plans to deploy permanent U.S. military bases in Afghanistan: “Whenever they [Americans] have come to this region, they have brought insecurity and terrorism.” During the presence of the Iranian visitor, the NATO command in Kabul circulated an official statement accusing certain Iranian forces of supporting the Taliban.

The passive stance taken by Afghanistan’s neighbors makes the U.S. the key player on the Afghan “chessboard,” with the local elite heeding the recommendations and opinions from Washington.

Another factor working for Afghan-American cooperation is the Afghans’ memory about the 1990s events. After the breakup of the Soviet Union and the fall of the last pro-Moscow regime – the Najibullah government, major states lost interest in Afghanistan. The civil war, which ruined Kabul, mostly stemmed from rivalry among neighboring states, above all Pakistan and Iran. Many Afghans are convinced that a U.S. withdrawal will lead to a recurrence of those tragic events.

NATO’s decade-long presence has made Afghanistan more dependent on foreign donors. At present, the U.S. pays more than half of the expenditure on the Afghan army and police. It is unlikely that Afghanistan will be able to fund its law-enforcement bodies unassisted in the near future. Although Kabul’s Western partners promise to continue their aid after the pullout of their troops, the Afghans are apprehensive that the U.S. will lose interest in their country, which, in turn, may result in a political and economic collapse.

Since the U.S. has not been explicit on its plans, politicians and experts have been considering various scenarios. In November 2010, the Russian Center for Contemporary Afghan Studies (CISA) at the request of the Institute of Oriental Studies provided a scenario of how the situation may develop in case the U.S. and NATO withdraw their forces from the country, give up active support of Hamid Karzai, and terminate their active struggle against the Taliban and other radical armed groups. In this event, the situation in Afghanistan may develop in the following way.

First, Taliban groups will attempt to capture the administrative centers of the provinces of Kandahar, Helmand, Oruzgan, Khost, Kunar and Nangarhar. Kandahar and Jalalabad will be priority targets for the militants. The capture of these towns will be their major military and political task. Supposedly, the Quetta Shura group will seek to take Kandahar, while Jalalabad will be the objective of warlords Sirajuddin Haqqani and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, as well as other groups comprising foreign mercenaries.

Taking relatively large bridgeheads in the south and east of the country is the necessary condition for a further advance of the Taliban and their allies towards Kabul and central provinces of Afghanistan. At this stage, there may appear Taliban principalities and separatist enclaves independent of Kabul. Simultaneously, large-scale drug production will be launched in areas under control of radical Islamists, as the Taliban will need funds to continue hostilities and gain political domination. Aside from the Quetta Shura and Haqqani groups, the Hekmatyar group will also seek to set up its own military-political bridgeheads in the east (the provinces of Kunar and Nuristan), in the immediate proximity to Kabul (the provinces of Lowgar and Kapisa), and also in the north (the province of Kunduz).

After the Taliban has set up bridgeheads in the south and east of Afghanistan, their commanders will focus on the struggle for Kabul. As the fighting assumes a country-wide dimension, rivalry will increase among radical leaders at various levels – in the inner circle of Mullah Mohammad Omar, between the Taliban and Hekmatyar, and between Hekmatyar and the Haqqani group. On top of that, rivalry will certainly increase between various Taliban commanders.

The strengthening of the Taliban in Afghanistan, especially in the south and southwest, will provoke a response from Iran and India. Sunni fundamentalism is enemy number one for Tehran. The strengthening of the Taliban will also be a direct threat to India’s national security, as it will upset the balance of power between India and Pakistan. Iran may take extra efforts to gain control over the province and the town of Herat and use it as an outpost to confront the Taliban inside Afghanistan. India will give priority to building allied relations with the new Northern Alliance and provide military assistance to the Kabul government in order to contain the Taliban’s activity in Afghanistan and prevent their possible crossing into Kashmir.

A fall of Kabul would provoke bitter rivalry in the radical movement, which will most likely be won by those who will enjoy direct military-political support of Pakistan. If a Taliban-dominated Afghanistan emerges again, it will be due to a compromise between various Taliban groups that will take control over the southwest of the country. A seizure of Kabul will sharply increase centrifugal trends in Afghanistan and the possibility of its division into a Pashtun South and a non-Pashtun North. The division will provoke a civil war, which may ruin the social, economic and humanitarian achievements of the past nine years and even the Afghan state per se, which will hardly be restored within its official borders in the foreseeable future.

FACELESS ENEMY

Meanwhile, however, Western states are demonstrating their desire to continue their support of the Karzai government. In 2010, Washington’s partners in the anti-terrorist coalition did not support Obama’s plans for an early troop withdrawal, causing Obama to say during a video link with Karzai that the timeframe for handing over security control to Afghan forces might be revised for a later date.

The Afghan National Army (ANA) must become the key instrument in ensuring security in the country. The stability of the present Afghan state and the success of the struggle against the Taliban and al Qaeda in the region depend on its qualitative and quantitative characteristics. Kabul’s Western allies began to rebuild Afghanistan’s national law-enforcement bodies immediately after the removal of the Taliban regime in 2002. The new Afghan army has since undergone dramatic changes: its strength has increased several times over, and it is equipped with Western equipment and has received NATO style training. Nevertheless, Afghan generals and politicians admit that the ANA is still incapable of protecting the state and its people from the Taliban on its own, largely because of the lack of heavy armaments.

Kabul has for years been urging Western states to supply heavy equipment to the ANA, above all tanks and aircraft. But Western sponsors are in no hurry. As a result, the Afghan army rather looks like a police force than national armed forces. In other words, Kabul depends not only on Western economic assistance but also on Western military presence.

Various reasons have been offered by commentators for Washington’s unwillingness to supply tanks and aircraft to the Afghan army, ranging from a secret agreement with neighboring states, which fear a strong Afghan army, to the West’s uncertainty about the future of the Kabul regime. No one knows where the tanks and aircraft will end up should the Afghan government fall: power may go to radicals, or Afghanistan may see a series of military coups, as it happened in neighboring Pakistan. Incidentally, keeping the U.S. military presence can serve to control the situation in the Afghan military establishment.

But the combat capability of the Afghan armed forces does not only depend on equipment in service with them. According to experts, ANA soldiers and the police have no firm ideological convictions, clear objectives or any idea of who their main enemy is. Whereas it is mostly the Taliban who claim responsibility for terrorist attacks in the country, Kabul blames some virtual villains, describing them as “enemies of the Afghan people.”

The army is also disoriented by the president who in addresses to Mullah Omar, the spiritual leader of the Taliban whom the ANA is fighting, repeatedly called him his “brother.”

On May 2, 2011, the leader of al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, was killed in a covert operation in Pakistan. The fact that the leader of the international terrorist organization was located several miles away from the Pakistan Military Academy (Pakistan’s West Point) put official Islamabad in an awkward position. It provoked accusations of Islamabad from the U.S. and other countries, which echoed earlier statements by Afghan politicians who had urged the United States and NATO to look for terrorist leaders in Pakistan.

In Afghanistan, bin Laden’s death and its circumstances have strengthened the positions of politicians (especially from the former Northern Alliance) known for their anti-Pakistani sentiments and criticism of President Karzai’s strategy of reconciliation with the Taliban. In the meantime, the president expressed his satisfaction that Kabul’s earlier statements proved to be correct.

A few weeks after “terrorist number one” was killed, some media outlets reported the beginning of a U.S. hunt for Mullah Omar. About the same time, Afghan security services announced that the Taliban’s spiritual leader had moved away from the Pakistani city of Quetta where, according to Afghan sources, he had been hiding for several years. U.S. politicians, including Ambassador Eikenberry, have also stated that “the leaders of terrorist organizations” are hiding in Pakistan. It is difficult to say yet whether these statements mean Washington’s readiness to extend large-scale security operations against the Taliban and al Qaeda from Afghanistan to Pakistan. But obviously, U.S. public opinion is already prepared for this.

The events in Afghanistan have a strong influence on a majority of states in the region. An early withdrawal of foreign troops can destabilize the situation in Afghanistan and radicalize the entire region, which may have unpredictable consequences. Such developments do not meet the interests of most countries in Central Eurasia. On the other hand, NATO’s continued presence in Afghanistan will exacerbate tensions over the issue of deployment of permanent U.S. bases and will thereby strain Washington’s relations with Moscow, Beijing and Tehran. Worse still, if the present situation of uncertainty persists, it will make all the players involved increasingly nervous and will prevent them from working out an effective behavior pattern.

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