Even as Afghanistan’s president, Hamid Karzai, was setting foot in the US, Washington was busy setting the terms of its military disengagement from his country. Though any announcement on post-2014 troop levels was not expected during Karzai’s three-day visit to the US, the Obama Administration was suggesting that it would indeed be considering “zero-option” for a residual force after the end of the US combat mission in 2014.
The Obama Administration indicated for the first time that it was possible that no US troops would remain in Afghanistan after 2014 even as it underlined that American decision would be guided by the “two goals of denying a safe haven to al-Qaeda and training and equipping Afghan National Security Forces”. Karzai’s visit was crucial in helping to set the framework for US involvement in Afghanistan after most of the US and NATO troops leave at the end of 2014.
Karzai and Obama discussed the size of the force likely to remain in Afghanistan post-2014 and Kabul’s request for future support to the Afghan military including warplanes for Afghan air force. The Afghan National Security Forces will need continued American support for some time to come and Karzai’s demand for military enablers is aimed at securing long-term commitment from Washington for Afghan security. Talks with the Taliban were also on the agenda with a seeming rapprochement between Afghanistan and Pakistan and Islamabad deciding to release groups of imprisoned Taliban commanders. There have been some preliminary discussions between the Taliban and the Afghan High Peace Council in France in December though Taliban would like to negotiate directly with the US and Washington would like them to talk to the Afghan government directly.
Karzai himself has expressed his desire to see western troops out of Afghanistan even as he has sought protection from militants based across the border in Pakistan. And he has resisted signing a long-term security agreement with the US arguing that its provisions undermine Afghan sovereignty. And though Karzai remains broadly supportive of US presence in Afghanistan, issues such as immunity for American soldiers and the transfer of detainees into Afghan custody remain highly contentious.
Privately, Washington pushed Karzai on the issue of governance and corruption. The 2014 elections should pave the way for a more democratic and accountable political system in Afghanistan if the country has any chance of surviving as a stable entity. This message was delivered to Karzai in strong terms even as there is grudging acknowledgement that there hardly any viable alternative to Karzai at the moment. The Obama Administration would like Karzai to stay out of Afghanistan’s 2014 presidential elections and they sought reassurances from him that he would neither extend his term nor install someone from his inner circle in the presidency. The ambivalence in Washington about what to do with its Afghanistan policy is largely a function of the fact that Obama’s heart was never in the war. The US public opinion is weary of fighting for more than a decade in a country where corruption and mal governance continues to hamper the evolution of a stable nation-state.
The US is presently spending around $120 billion in year in Afghanistan and this spending is becoming unsustainable because of the economic crisis plaguing the US.
Despite Karzai’s bravado that Afghanistan is ready to stand on its own, concerns are growing about the fate of the country when the bulk of US troops are withdrawn. There has been a surge of “green on blue” attacks in recent months with the past year witnessing the death of 63 US and NATO troops.
The result of a hasty US withdrawal is going to be a civil war in the county and a disaster for the region. There is a danger that the much touted negotiations with the Taliban might just end providing a fig-leaf to the departure of western troops and the Taliban will continue to flirt with al-Qaeda.
The US is intent on courting the Taliban and for this it will need all the help it can get from the Pakistani Army. As a consequence, there are already changes in the attitudes of the Obama Administration toward the Pakistani military. Rawalpindi will play this role with great relish as it will try its utmost to retain its role as the central arbiter of the political dynamic in Afghanistan. India will have to carefully assess how this will impact its own significant stakes in Afghanistan and respond accordingly. New Delhi needs to make Washington aware of its own concerns about the trajectory of America’s Afghan policy with some urgency.
The writer teaches at King’s College, London