People's Democracy

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


No. 21

May 27, 2012

Afghanistan: American Exit Strategy


Yohannan Chemarapally


AT the NATO summit in Chicago, President Barack Obama, warned his allies that “hard days are ahead” as the US prepares to withdraw from Afghanistan. Among the audience were the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, and his Pakistani counterpart, Asaf Ali Zardari. Thousands of anti-war protestors had massed near the venue of the summit. Clashes were reported between the police and the demonstrators. The protests were led by US army veterans who had participated in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They symbolically gave up their military medals. The Americans are desperately trying to convince the NATO countries that have forces in Afghanistan to stay on till 2014, the year in which the US forces are to leave. The newly elected French president, Francois Hollande, however reiterated his commitment during the NATO meet --- that all French forces will be out of Afghanistan before the end of the year.  




The countdown to the American exit started with the unannounced midnight visit of President Barack Obama to Kabul in early May. The main purpose of the visit was to highlight Washington’s commitment to the deadline for withdrawal of troops in 2014. But this being an election year in the US, Obama also wanted to emphasise his “decisive” role in the elimination of the Al Qaeda leader, Osama bin Laden. The visit of the American president coincided with the first death anniversary of the Al Qaeda leader. President Obama, speaking to an American prime time television audience from the Bagram air base outside Kabul, said that he had made his surprise visit to usher in a new era in the relationship between the US and Afghanistan. He claimed that it would be a “future in which war ends, and a new chapter begins.” Obama in his address sought to assure the war weary American public that peace was dawning on Afghanistan after a decade of strife and violence.


The president who has made the killing of Osama, a campaign issue, reminded his domestic television audience that the operation to eliminate the al Qaeda leader was launched from a military base in Afghanistan. “The goal I set, to defeat Al Qaeda, and deny it a chance to rebuild ----is now within our reach,” the US president said. The president claimed that it was during his tenure that the Al Qaeda leadership was “devastated.” He said in his speech that 20 out of the 30 top Qaeda leaders were eliminated in the last three years. It was well known for some years now that the Qaeda had a very limited presence in Afghanistan, numbering less than a hundred. The remnants of the Qaeda were scattered in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and other parts of the world.


As the “Osama tapes” released by the US in early May reveal, the Al Qaeda was a rudderless organisation after 9/11, desperately but unsuccessfully seeking to influence events in Afghanistan and the world.


The American President also revealed publicly for the first time that the US government had “started direct talks” with the Taliban to bring about a “negotiated peace.” Obama stressed on a “clear time line to wind down the war.” The Taliban has been demanding that the Americans spell out plans for the complete withdrawal of all American forces from the country. The American president spoke about the need for a “global consensus” on Afghanistan while describing Pakistan as an “equal partner” with “legitimate” interests in Afghanistan.  But the president’s emphasis on “global consensus” gave countries like India, Russia, China and Iran a political stake in the future of Afghanistan.


The Taliban had withdrawn from the preliminary talks with the US government earlier in the year. The events of desecration of the Koran and atrocities by American troops against Afghan civilians are some of the reasons being given by the Taliban for the breakdown of the nascent dialogue process. The Taliban had also rejected American conditions for full-fledged talks to begin. These included recognition of the Karzai government and agreeing to a ceasefire before the departure of American troops. The only demand the Taliban were willing to concede was that of snapping their tenuous links with the Al Qaeda.




Obama also claimed that the Afghan security forces were now ready to shoulder the responsibility for maintaining security. American and NATO forces will be relinquishing combat duty next year prior to their withdrawal from the country. At the same time, the American president talked of an “enduring partnership” with Afghanistan. Obama and the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, signed an agreement detailing the new partnership between the two countries after 2014. The US has pledged to help Afghanistan economically for a decade though no details of American financial commitment have been forthcoming. No concrete measures were announced to combat the drug menace in the war-torn country. Afghanistan is the biggest opium producer in the world. The Taliban, Afghan warlords and government officials have all gained in different ways from the receipts of the drugs trade. Neighbouring Tajikistan’s economy is now dependent on the transit of illegal drugs through its territory.


The contours of the future security relationship between the two countries have also been deliberately left vague. It has been widely speculated that the US will retain many of its military bases in Afghanistan after the bulk of its troops are withdrawn in 2014. The US has been publicly demanding that its Special Forces remain in the country after 2014. The US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, recently stated that Washington was not seeking permanent military bases “or a presence that is considered a threat to the neighbours.” At the same time she anticipated “that a small number of the forces would remain at the invitation of the Afghan government.”


The latest agreement, however, contains assurances that the US will not be building new military bases or use the current facilities it uses to launch attacks on Iran from inside Afghanistan. Washington has also promised to designate Afghanistan as “a major non-NATO ally.” This will commit Washington to defend Afghanistan if it faces aggression from a third country. Iran, Russia, China and Pakistan have objected to the retention of American bases after 2014. Iran, which is being continuously threatened with war, is already ringed by the largest number of American military bases.


These and related issues are expected to be formally ironed out when a “Bilateral Security Agreement” between the US and Afghanistan is signed within a year. A Pentagon spokesman said that the Afghan authorities would not have a say in the conduct of the night raids. President Karzai has chosen to describe the new agreement with the US as one “marked by mutual respect.” But the “Enduring Strategic Partnership” agreement signed during the Obama visit allows the US Special Forces to continue with the hated “night raids” on private Afghan homes under nominal Afghan supervision. Karzai has been crying hoarse for the last several months, demanding the immediate end to the night raids. The Pentagon has been claiming that the raids have resulted in the elimination of several Taliban leaders and their supporters.


The Afghan government and human rights groups have said that most of the victims have been innocent civilians, among them women and children. Washington has also not given any indications that the drone attacks being launched from Afghanistan are going to stop any time soon. The Pakistani government has been loudly demanding the cessation of drone attacks inside its territory. The drone attacks in the country’s tribal areas have inflamed public opinion and have hampered Islamabad’s efforts to repair the strained ties with Washington.




The timing of the Obama visit was also dictated by the NATO summit held in Chicago on May 20. The main agenda of the summit is the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan. Like in America, public opinion in these countries is overwhelmingly against the war in Afghanistan. Washington wants to use the NATO summit to make its recalcitrant allies remain cooperative and for continued financial commitment to the Karzai government after 2014. With a global economic downturn putting the western economies in a tailspin, there will be little incentive for sinking more money into the Afghan quagmire. During his brief Kabul visit, Obama had warned that if foreign forces left Afghanistan in a hurry, NATO would have to surrender many of its military gains.


As soon as the American president left for home after his hurried visit, Kabul was once again rocked by insurgent attacks. The Taliban said the attacks targeting security installations were a “message” to Obama. The latter has been claiming that the “tide has turned” against the Taliban insurgency. In recent months, however, the Taliban and their allies have shown that they have the capacity to strike sensitive targets in Kabul and other major cities at will; 138 American led NATO troops have been killed since the beginning of the year. Most experts predict that the US will not be able to secure the south and the east of Afghanistan before the scheduled departure date of 2014. Recent Taliban attacks have extended to the Tajik and Uzbek dominated areas which were relatively peaceful till now.


The 330,000 strong Afghan National Army (ANA) has shown that it is incapable of fighting on its own, despite the billions of dollars spend on its training and arming by the West and its allies. NATO provides 11 billion dollars a year to support the Afghan Army. A recent report said that most of the ANA soldiers are functionally illiterate. Besides, they have a propensity to defect to the opposition with their uniforms and arms. Some 20 per of all NATO troop casualties this year was at the hands of rogue ANA soldiers. After the Koran burning incident, undisciplined US soldiers have further fuelled Afghan anger by going on periodic rampages targeting innocent civilians and posing with the bodies of dead and dismembered insurgent fighters. The latest gruesome photos of US servicemen posing with Afghan human trophies were published in the Los Angeles Times in mid-April. The newspaper had chosen to publish the pictures despite heavy pressure from the Pentagon.


Despite the optimism expressed by President Obama about the future of Afghanistan during his latest hurried visit to the country, according to most observers of the region, is that the country is a less secure place than it was when the Americans first arrived in 2001. The US has spent more than 450 billion dollars so far on its military adventure in Afghanistan. The Afghan economy is almost completely dependent on military spending. About 70 per cent of Afghans survive on less than 2 dollars a day. According to aid agencies, more than 30,000 children are dying every year in the country due to the effects of malnutrition.