Afghanistan: Effective US Withdrawal is Impossible

Posted on November 24, 2013 by


Talks among Afghan tribal elders are ongoing at the Loya Jirga this week over the prospect of the withdrawal of American troops in 2014. The outgoing President of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, has requested that any agreement should be signed after the presidential elections in April next year, however it is likely that a deal will be reached before the end of 2013.

The current lay of the land is that 15,000 US soldiers will remain in Afghanistan after the withdrawal. Their brief will largely be confined to training the Afghan military, but the door has been left open for them to carry out “counter-terror operations”. A typical almost-withdrawal then. The Cold War may have ended (that’s a different argument) but the US does like to leave small pockets of soldiers all over the place.

But what of the concept of NATO leaving Afghanistan? What the international community wants is to leave a stable and secure country that can solve remaining problems without the assistance of foreign militaries. However, is this really possible? When the time for the bulk of US troops to leave finally arrives next year the White House will attempt to assure the public that the infrastructure they leave behind is enough to set the country on course for a promising future. The reality, on the other hand, is that Afghanistan will be left facing a multitude of problems, many of which predate the war.

Corruption is rife in Afghanistan. The war-ravaged nation ranked joint last with Somalia and North Korea in Transparency International’s 2012 index. Allegations of corrupt activity plague both the military and the fledgling bureaucracy. This raises both the question of whether the central authority in Kabul can effectively rule over regions where pre-invasion warlords still hold sway, and of how effectively any future foreign aid would be put to use. A good parallel is Libya, where the new government in Tripoli is up against the influence of militia in the capital and powerful tribes in the south where its control is limited.

Another problem is that, even now with the US about to withdraw its troops, the mountain regions along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border are lawless strongholds of the Taliban. When you add accusations of the ISI (Pakistan’s intelligence service), and possibly even the Pakistani government, turning a blind eye to (or at worst, directly assisting) the Taliban to the mix, the resulting stew is dangerous. How can the international community hope for Afghanistan to fix itself when insurgents that the American military failed to root out still occupy the county’s border? Parallels can be seen with guerrilla fighters in Vietnam.

Negotiations with the Taliban are ongoing, with a Taliban embassy set up in Doha, Qatar. This process has barely begun, however. It could be argued that maintaining the American army in Afghanistan would force the negotiations to speed up, and that a withdrawal might cause the Taliban to feel more secure in their position and toughen and expand their demands. Whatever happens, US pressure inevitably will be needed for the talks to go anywhere at all. Another job to be crammed into John Kerry’s already packed schedule.

Safe in the knowledge that he doesn’t need to win any more elections, Hamid Karzai has taken the opportunity to criticise American military actions in Afghanistan, particularly its drone policy. While this is a fair argument (and this is not a defence of the drone programme), his criticism is probably unhelpful in that the country needs American assistance in the long run. Without major foreign investment the country will undoubtedly fail, and none will match the sums America will put forward.

Regardless of whether or not withdrawal in 2014 is a good idea for the enduring stability of Afghanistan, there is no alternative now. President Obama cannot delay the departure of the vast majority of American troops; to do so would be suicide for the Democratic Party in 2016. He cannot afford another public backlash such as the one that followed Snowdengate. US troops will leave in 2014, what remains to be seen is whether the country will survive.

CC Image Courtesy of The U.S. Army, Flickr