Exit Strategy in Afganistan: US plan will lead to further instability

The Artillery Journal | Aug 4, 2011

Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, still a perceptive observer of the emerging strategic environment, has written that four conditions must be met to make the exit strategy viable: "A cease-fire; withdrawal of all or most American and allied forces: the creation of a coalition government or division of territories among the contending parties; and an enforcement mechanism." None of the four conditions appear viable at present. Finally, there is so far no evidence yet that the US and its allies are planning to make substantive efforts to put in place a viable international peacekeeping force to help the Afghan government to maintain security after their own exit from Afghanistan in 2014.

Under pressure from his own party leaders to hasten the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan scheduled to begin in July 2011, President Barack Obama has approved the draw-down of 10,000 troops by the end of 2011 and another 23,000 by 2012. The President wants the draw-down to be carried out at a pace that is much faster than what General David Petraeus, the commander of US and allied forces. had recommended as an operationally owe viable rate. After the killing of Osama bin Laden, Senator John Kerry and re other Democrats urged Obama to change the campaign’s course from fighting the Taliban all over Afghanistan and continuing the unsustainable efforts at nation building by targeting only the Al-Qaeda and protecting US interests.

Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, still a perceptive observer of the emerging strategic environment, has written that four conditions must be met to make the exit strategy viable (“How to Exit Afghanistan, Washington Post, June 8, 2011): “A cease-fire; withdrawal of all or most American and allied forces: the creation of a coalition government or division of territories among the contending parties (or both); and an enforcement mechanism.” None of the four conditions appear viable at present. Nor do these conditions look achievable in the 2014-15 time frame in which the exit strategy is planned to be completed. This is because the challenge posed by the Taliban and its affiliates In Afghanistan is extremely complex, democratic institutions nave not yet taken root, governance is deficient, socio-economic development has not Shaped up the way it had been hoped It would and the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police are not yet in a state of combat readiness that they can assume responsibility for Security.

State of the Taliban Insurgency

Although President Obama tripled the number of US forces to 100,000 In the two years he has been in office, this surge in force levels has failed to effectively counter the long-term threat posed by the Taliban and its Al Qaeda partners. In 2010-11, every single month was worse than the preceding one in terms of the number of incident, the casualties to ISAF forces and the killing of innocent civilians. Along the Af-Pak border, despite continuing drone attacks, there has been a steady deterioration in the ability of ISAF to eliminate sate havens of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda extremists. Even the Pakistan army has not fared well in Its fight against the TTP cadres holding out in North Waziristan.

The report on the situation in Afghanistan released by the White House in March 2011 clearly banked more on hope than reality. It admitted that the “challenge remains to make our goals durable and sustainable. However, as is usual with field commanders on the ground, General Petraeus, now approved to take over as CIA chief, continued to claim that the security situation was improving steadily and that the Taliban offensive had been contained. In testimony before Congress in early-March 2011, Petraeus claimed that the momentum achieved by the Taliban had been ‘arrested in much of the country and reversed in a number of areas.’ However, to his credit, he stressed that the “successes are fragile and reversible.

The Afghan National Army (ANA) and the Afghan police are to be entrusted with the responsibility to independently take over the security function from ISAF in selected provinces beginning in July 2011 so that the planned drawdown of forces can begin. So far the Afghan security forces have not exhibited the standards of professionalism, battalion cohesion and the of junior leadership that are necessary for success in the complex and challenging security environment prevailing in Afghanistan. They still need ISAF officers and quick reaction teams to accompany them for operations, failing which they tend to lose unit cohesion very quickly and disperse in panic. Desertion, AWOL (absence without leave), fratricide and indiscipline rates are high. The standards of junior leadership and basic infantry skills are low.

As had been widely anticipated, the Taliban has launched a vigorous spring-summer offensive and the US-led NATO-ISAF forces have retaliated with equal force. Nuristan, a north-eastern province bordering, Pakistan, has been taken over by the insurgents. Despite repeated offensive operations being launched by the US-led NATO-ISAF forces, the situation in Helmand, Kandahar and Marja is still grim. With the withdrawal of NATO-ISAF force, Nuristan on Afghanistan’s northeastern border has virtually become a Stronghold of the Taliban. Recent bomb and suicide attacks In Kabul also point to the fragility of the security situation.

The Pakistan army has apparently learnt nothing from the killing of Osama bin Laden and continues to pretend that his presence at Abbottabad was a mystery. Instead of reinvigorating Its efforts to eliminate terrorists who are undermining Pakistan’s security, the army is still holding off from launching the long-delayed offensive against the TTP in North Waziristan. Meanwhile, reports of US drone attacks against terrorists along the Af-Pak border continue to trickle In virtually on a daily basis despite the Pakistan army’s strident protestations.

There have also been several attacks from Afghanistan into villages across Pakistan’s border. While it is early days yet in this year’s military confrontation, a continuing stalemate will be the most likely outcome.


A US Congressional study report, released on June 8, 2011, has found that nation-building efforts in Afghanistan are floundering as the massive economic aid programme lacks proper oversight and breeds corruption. It says that most local officials are incapable of “spending wisely”. It also says that there is little evidence to support the view that even the “politically pleasing short term results will be sustainable once the draw-down begins. The report notes that the Afghan economy could easily slip into a depression as it is mainly a “war-time” economy that is a huge distortion’. It is well Known, of course, that the US military conducts its own development programme in the areas cleared of the Taliban to win the people’s support. Some of these aid programmes are completely out of sync with those approved by the Afghan government.

The development work being undertaken by the Karzai government and the PRTs (provincial reconstruction teams) has not reached the poorest provinces as efforts are concentrated on areas that are relatively more secure and are well connected by roads. The PRTs spend large sums of money on security for their supply convoys and most of this money ultimately ends up as a source of funding for the Taliban.
The traditional notion that development work can be successfully undertaken by external agencies has not been borne out over the last 10 years in Afghanistan. A better method would be to assist the Afghans with aid, materials and expertise and let them take the responsibility for development. However, due to the lack of efficient governance and rampant corruption, this method also has serious pitfalls.

Reconciliation Efforts

The two—year- old efforts to move towards reconciliation with the so-called “good Taliban” have not made much headway. Secret talks being mediated by Germany between the US government and Tayyab Agha, said to be a close confidante of Mullan Mohammed Omar, are unlikely to achieve a major breakthrough as no one is quite sure whether Agha is actually negotiating on behalf of Mullan Omar or whether the Taliban are simply using the talks as a ploy to buy time. The Haqaani shoora, that enjoys ISI support and patronage, is not part of the reconciliation process as General. Kayanis offer of his good offices to negotiate with the Taliban has not found any takers. The Taliban are keen to buy time by pretending to be interested in a negotiated settlement. And, the Pakistanis are egging them on by telling them to hang in there as the Americans will soon go away.

While regional efforts to secure peace in Afghanistan remain Naphazard, these are likely to slowly gather momentum when the draw-down of NATO-ISAF forces finally begins. During a visit to Kabul in mid-May, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh endorsed President Karzai’s “process of national reconciliation” and said, We hope that Afghanistan will be able to build a framework of regional cooperation that will help its nation-building efforts. There is increasing realisation even in Washington that there cannot be a lasting solution to the intractable Afghan conflict unless Afghanistan’s close neighbours and those in its extended neighbourhood provide reasonable guarantees of non interference. Also, in the post-Osama environment, it is being gradually realised that Pakistan is part of the problem and cannot, therefore, be part of the solution. The international community is realising that Pakistan’s sensibilities have been given too much weightage in the various major conferences that have been held to seek a solution to the conflict.

Conflict Termination

While the surgical strike in Abbottabad has brought closure to the decade-long hunt for the world’s most wanted terrorist, it is not merely about Osama bin Laden — it Is also about Pakistan. By ordering attacks on several American targets on September 11, 2001, Osama bin Laden nada written his own death warrant and it was only a matter of time when he would be hounded out from his hiding place. It was as Clear as daylight to all perceptive analysts that there was no way a man on weekly kidney dialysis could hide In the caves of Afghanistan. He had to be somewhere in Pakistan close to a military hospital and that is where he was finally found. With the death of Osama bin Laden one battle has ended in a morale boosting victory for the NATO-ISAF forces, but the war goes on. The Al-Qaeda network has been Shaken and there has been some dissension, but it will slowly come together once again under Al Zawahiri’s leadership. Another Spectacular attack may be expected. US air strikes against terrorists hiding in safe havens in Pakistan have intensified. These tactics will become the mainstay of the counter-insurgency NATO-ISAF counter-insurgency campaign over the next few years unless the Pakistan army and the ISI abandon their quest for strategic depth in Afghanistan and stop sheltering all varieties of terrorists while pretending to fight them.

Little Cause for Hope

Overall, the situation in Afghanistan offers little cause for hope. The security environment is still fragile. Poor governance, political instability, Ill-trained and badly equipped and poorly motivated Afghan security forces, rampant corruption, gross misuse of international aid, resurgent Taliban, lack of political and military will among several members of the coalition to continue the fight and Pakistan’s continuing double game do not augur well for peace and stability. While President Obama’s domestic political compulsions are understandable, militarily the time Is not ripe to commence withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan. In fact, what Afghanistan needs is another military Surge in order to be able to hold cleared areas against the Taliban, rather than the thinning down of troops. They are fond of saying that the ISAF forces may have the watches but they have the time. They are convinced that the US and NATO forces do not nave the political will or the military staying power to last the course and they are biding their time for the foreign forces to quit.

Finally, there is so far no evidence yet that the US and its allies are planning to make substantive efforts to put in place a viable international peacekeeping force to help the Afghan government to maintain security after their own exit from Afghanistan in 2014. lf this is not done, the Taliban will gradually seize one province after another, with covert help from Pakistan, and will eventually force the capitulation of the government — paving the way for their triumphant return to power to once again practice their peculiar brand of Sharia. Conflict termination on such terms would signify not only the failure of President Obama’s exit strategy but also that the war in Afghanistan was fought in vain. It would also mean that one more American intervention has gone hopelessly wrong.