US Army soldiers supervise firing training for soldiers of the Afghan National Army (ANA). The ANA is starting to take over security responsibility for some areas this year, leading up to full responsibility in 2014
By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 25th Jun 11
The wheel has turned full circle in Afghanistan. President Obama’s announcement on Wednesday of a faster-than-expected schedule for the thinning out of US forces from Afghanistan is one indicator. The other is the ongoing negotiation of a “strategic alliance” between Washington and Kabul that would permit a substantial US military presence in Afghanistan even after that country assumes responsibility for its own security in 2014.
Afghanistan is no longer the crucial battleground, but the essential base from which America would prosecute its war on terror groups in Pakistan.
It was very different a decade ago, the morning after the 9/11 strikes, when Pakistan’s support was deemed essential for America’s retaliation against the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. General Pervez Musharraf recounts in his memoirs how US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, demanded staging facilities for US forces, telling him bluntly on the phone that Pakistan was either with America or against it. Powell’s deputy, Richard Armitage, was even franker the next day, famously threatening Pakistan’s ISI chief, Lt Gen Mahmood Ahmed, who was visiting Washington, that Pakistan would be bombed back into the Stone Age if it sided with the terrorists.
Pakistan was then an indispensable supply route and America’s enemies were in Afghanistan. But today Washington believes that a “transnational threat” comes not from Afghanistan but from a terror triumvirate in Pakistan: the Al Qaeda remnants; the Pakistani Taliban (called the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, or TTP); and the Haqqani network, which is an Afghan Taliban faction that is widely believed to operate under the ISI’s wings.
For tackling this Pakistan-based threat, a section of US policymakers have long argued that America does not need 97,000 soldiers in Afghanistan. In the lively Washington debate in 2009 that led to the American “surge” of 30,000 additional soldiers to Afghanistan, US vice-president Joe Biden argued against stepped up manpower-heavy, “counter-insurgency” operations against the Taliban. Instead Biden advocated primarily for technology-intensive, “counter-terrorism” operations against jehadi groups and their bases in Pakistan. This needed little more in Afghanistan than Special Forces, intelligence units, and unmanned airborne vehicles (UAVs) for striking pinpoint targets.
The US raid on Abbottabad last month that killed Osama bin Laden, and the killing of Al Qaeda commander Ilyas Kashmiri shortly after that, were spectacular “counter-terrorism” successes of the kind that Biden, and many other Americans, continue to advocate.
As Bruce Reidel, a retired C.I.A. officer who conducted Mr. Obama’s first review of strategy in the region, told The New York Times: what the bin Laden raid in Abbottabad “demonstrated more vividly than ever is that we need a base to strike targets in Pakistan, and the geography is simple: You need to do that from Afghanistan.”
Now US President Barack Obama, riding on the euphoria of these operations and with an eye on re-election by a war-weary electorate in 2012, has moved decisively towards a counter-terrorism strategy. Overruling his Afghanistan military commander General David Petraeus, who had argued for a token withdrawal of about 5000 soldiers in 2011, Obama has announced a markedly sharper cut of 10,000 troops this year and another 23,000 by the end of next summer. That would still leave 64,000 US soldiers in Afghanistan; those numbers would gradually reduce in the lead-up to 2014, when security responsibility would be handed over to Afghan forces. How many American soldiers would be permitted beyond 2014 would be decided in the ongoing “strategic alliance” negotiations.
Meanwhile, other members of the NATO coalition are bound to follow the American lead. The United Kingdom, with about 10,000 soldiers in Afghanistan, is pulling out 450 soldiers this summer, and has announced that all British combat troops would be withdrawn from Afghanistan by 2015. France has also announced a withdrawal that parallels America’s.
Their place will be taken by Afghanistan’s fledgling security forces --- the Afghan National Army (ANA); and the Afghan National Police (ANP) --- which coalition members are training. ANA and ANP numbers have swelled to 296,000, of which 100,000 have been added in just the last six months. There are serious questions over their capability. Just one recruit in ten is literate and desertion rates remain worrying, though increased salaries have brought them down somewhat.
Critical to the American vision for Afghanistan is the reconciliation process with the Taliban. A long-term US presence is anathema to the Taliban; a US drawdown, alongside the failure of reconciliation, could well result in the effective Balkanisation of Afghanistan, with the Taliban controlling southern Afghanistan and the remaining US forces militarily propping up Karzai’s (or a successor’s) government in northern Afghanistan. At least one prominent American thinker, former US Ambassador to India, Robert Blackwill, has foreseen the de facto division of Afghanistan, with US drone and Special Forces strikes being conducted from northern Afghanistan into the south and into Pakistan.
For Pakistan, the US drawdown is ominous since Washington’s reduced dependence on Pakistan will allow more effective arm-twisting of Islamabad. As senior US officials have briefed New Delhi, the dependence on Pakistan for logistical routes has already come down thanks to Russia’s cooperation in expanding the Northern Distribution Network (NDN). This involves landing US supplies in Baltic Sea ports and then transporting them to Afghanistan through Russia and the Central Asian countries over a 3,200-mile railway. Even though the NDN is four times as expensive as the comparatively straightforward route through Pakistan, it already accounts for half of America’s logistical requirements in Afghanistan. Any reduction in the American presence will further decrease Pakistan’s leverage.