People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 30

July 24, 2011

 Afghanistan: End Game!


Yohannan Chemerapally


THE much awaited announcement by President Barack Obama about the partial withdrawal of American troops form Afghanistan by the middle of next year and bringing the war there to “a responsible end” has been welcomed by the government in Afghanistan. But the Taliban in a statement described President Obama’s announcement only as a “symbolic step which will never satisfy the international community or the war weary American public”. The Taliban has sent a strong message to Washington in July with the assassination of Ahmed Wali Karzai, the Afghan and American point man in Kandahar and the half brother of the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai. This incident was followed by the assassination of two more leading politicians having close links with the president. 




It is also a fact that the American public has been disillusioned for many years with the war in Afghanistan. Recent public opinion surveys have shown that the majority of the Americans are against the Afghan war. A PEW Research Centre survey showed that 56 per cent of Americans want a speedy withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan. More than 1500 American servicemen have lost their lives in Afghanistan so far.  Obama had earlier on in his term promised a complete withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014.


The American military establishment, personified by the Pentagon, has questioned the president’s latest move to withdraw one-third of the 100,000 American troops stationed in Afghanistan. At the military’s behest, Obama had sent an additional 30,000 troops last year in a last ditch attempt to quell the Taliban militarily. Adm Mike Mullen, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff told a US House of Representative committee hearing that the president’s “faster than expected” withdrawal plans created “new risks”.


Recent events have shown that the Taliban continues to be a force to be reckoned with. Soon after the American president’s speech announcing the withdrawal of forces, the Taliban struck at a five star hotel in the heart of Kabul. NATO troops and helicopters had to be requisitioned to kill the Taliban hit squad that attacked the Hotel Inter-Continental on June 26. The Taliban leadership has conveyed that its forces will continue fighting until the last American troops leave Afghanistan.


At present there are 100,000 American troops along with 40,000 soldiers from the NATO alliance. Obama has said that 10,000 troops will be relocated from Afghanistan by the end of this year and another 33,000 by the middle of next year. This number tallies with the number of extra troops he ordered as part of the “military surge” in December 2009. Obama, who had described the occupation of Afghanistan as the “good war” during his successful campaign for the presidency, had dramatically escalated the American troop numbers in Afghanistan. Going by the time table of withdrawal he has announced, there still will be twice as more American troops in Afghanistan in 2012, when he faces the electorate again. The numbers of American soldiers in Afghanistan will be more than when he took over as president in 2008.


The Taliban would not have failed to notice that the American president in his latest speeches no longer talks of inflicting a comprehensive military defeat on the resistance forces. Instead he has talked about strengthening the Afghan army, so that it can be able to prevent the overthrow of the government in Kabul after the withdrawal of the bulk of the American troops. The Afghan army and police forces, trained by the US/NATO are known to be an undisciplined and mostly uneducated bunch. The defection rate is already very high. In recent months, there have been instances of Afghan army officers turning their guns on their foreign trainers. Many of the recent attacks on the occupation forces were carried out by fighters disguised in Afghan army uniforms. The US has spent $22 billion in 2010 and 2011 to train and equip the 300,000 strong Afghan security forces


Obama’s announcement of a partial troop withdrawal from Afghanistan was prompted mainly by electoral calculations. He is up for re-election next year and the American economy is teetering. The war in Afghanistan has been bleeding the American exchequer. The US has given development aid worth more than $18.8 billion to Afghanistan and another $20 billion to Pakistan to buy support for the Afghan war. It is estimated that the bill for the upkeep of each American soldier costs a million dollar per year. Today the US has nothing concrete to show for the tax payer’s money it has expended in the region. After the killing of Osama bin Laden, a bipartisan group of US lawmakers sent a letter to the American president asking him “to withdraw all troops from Afghanistan that are not crucial for the immediate national security of combating al Qaeda”.


 Obama in his June 24 speech said that the US was giving up on “nation building projects” and would no longer be engaged in “open ended wars”. He said that by 2014, the Afghan people “would be responsible for their own security”. The government in Kabul led by Hamid Karzai seeing the writing on the wall is trying to free itself from the apron strings of the Americans. He has on recent occasions criticised the American military presence calling it “ineffective” and at the same causing harm to the civilian populace. In recent speeches, he has gone to the extents of describing the American troop presence as an “occupation”.


According to the latest quarterly UN Report, civilian deaths and injuries are up by 20 per cent as compared to the toll last summer, with 1090 dead. Over 435,000 Afghans were displaced by the war, a 4 per cent increase compared to last year. The Obama administration had portrayed to the world that the military surge he had ordered was a big success which had helped in pacifying large parts of the country. Now it turns out that most of those killed and arrested had nothing to do with the Taliban. According to a recent investigative report, 90 per cent of the Taliban fighters captured by US forced were soon released as they turned out to be ordinary Afghan civilians.


The majority of the populace in Afghanistan and Pakistan want to see the back of the Americans at the earliest. The beleaguered government in Pakistan is also trying to distance itself from the US. The latest illustration of the growing alienation is the reported demand by the Pakistani government for the removal of American military personnel coordinating the sharply escalating drone attacks on targets inside Pakistan from military bases on its territory. But the Pakistani establishment is also deeply wary about the implications of a US troop drawdown in Afghanistan and the future scenario for the region.  





Washington is already in talks with the Karzai government for a permanent retention of its key military bases in Afghanistan, after the bulk of the American troops leave the country. The Pentagon spokesman said after the Obama speech that the Decemeber 31, 2104 withdrawal date was an “aspirational one”. He said that it does not mean that all American and other foreign troop will be gone from Afghanistan by then. The NATO secretary general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen chipped in to say that the Afghan war would continue for “as long as it takes”.  


A few weeks before his retirement, the US defence secretary, Robert Gates, said that the US should maintain a long term presence in Afghanistan.  Gates and Gen David Petraeus, the commander of the US/NATO forces in Afghanistan, have also publicly voiced their desire for American soldiers to stay on beyond the publicly announced departure deadline of 2014. According to reports, Russia, China and India have conveyed to Washington that they are against permanent US military bases in Afghanistan. Senior Pakistani officials are trying to convince the Afghan government to look up to China for security, after the departure of the Americans. American power can be easily deployed against neighbouring countries like Iran, if the US military bases are allowed to stay. The US mission to eliminate Osama bin Laden was conducted from a military base in Afghanistan. 


The American president in his speech had also said that Washington would ensure that there would not be any “terrorist safe havens in Pakistan” and “will never tolerate a safe haven for those who aim to kill us”. This could mean that the US is contemplating the stationing of a military force in Afghanistan to ensure that the Taliban don’t succeed in capturing the government in Kabul and keep the Af-Pak border areas permanently under watch. This in effect means that the Pakistani government will continue to be under intense scrutiny and subject to cross-border attacks.


Obama had insisted in his speech that Pakistan “expand its participation in securing a more peaceful future” for the region and keep on working with the US to “rot out the cancer of violent extremism”. In a not too veiled threat, Obama said that the “US would insist that (Pakistan) keeps to its commitments”. Senior US officials have told the media that while numerous international terrorist plots have emanated from Pakistani soil, none have emerged from Afghanistan for the seven to eight years. The US military now gets much of its supplies through Central Asia. Till 2009, 90 per cent of NATO and US military surface cargo came through the port of Karachi. By the end of this year, US military planners hope to get 75 per cent of their cargo through the Central Asian route.


Islamabad is preparing for life after a possible US military departure. In the last week of June, the Pakistani president along with Karzai was present at an international conference in Teheran hosted by President Mahmoud Ahamadenijad. The topic was the threat posed by terrorism to countries in the region and the need to unitedly face them. India along with other major players in the region was invited. Most of the countries were represented at a lower level. Iran and Pakistan, both sharing long borders with Afghanistan will naturally be playing a key role in regional politics. Obama administration officials have accused Teheran of helping the Taliban. The fundamentalist Taliban was a sworn enemy of Iran when it was in power in Kabul. Pakistan’s major concern is to negate India’s influence in Afghanistan.