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Mainstream, VOL LII, No 44, October 25, 2014

Afghanistan Faces Uncertain Future

Friday 24 October 2014, by M K Bhadrakumar

Afghanistan has witnessed two major events in the most recent weeks. One is the assumption of office by Ashraf Ghani as the next President of the country, succeeding Hamid Karzai. The second has been the signing of the two “back-to-back” security pacts between Afghanistan on the one hand and the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation [NATO] on the other.

Both developments are of historical importance in their own ways. Ghani’s presidency signifies a rare peaceful transition of power in the ebb and flow of Afghan history.

As for the second, Afghanistan has been invaded and occupied before in its tumultuous history dating back to Alexander the Great— the last famous occupation followed the British invasion in the 19th century—but never before has that country had to agree to foreign military presence on its soil in such an open-ended fashion.

Equally, for the first time in its history, Afghanistan is taking help from a foreign military alliance. Indeed, the subplot here is also that the foreign military presence is not of a regional character, but is “extra-regional” drawn from countries from a faraway region which is tens of thousands miles away from South or Central Asia and have had no shared history or culture with Afghanistan.

Therefore, this is a poignant moment in Afghan history and what has happened in the recent weeks is undoubtedly of profound significance to the country’s future and regional security. Right at the outset it can be safely noted that a major element of uncertainty arises simply out of the absence of any reliable esti-mation as to what exactly are the thoughts churning in the mind of the Afghan nation as regards these developments.

The public opinion surveys have been conducted largely by the Western agencies or under Western sponsorship and a question-mark needs to be put on their credibility. At best, only conjectures can be made, which of course is inadequate anywhere, and more so, given the inscrutable nature of the Afghan personality, formed through centuries of historical experience, the culture and the traditions of the land.

How the Afghan people’s fierce sense of independence gets tempered in the period ahead will have a huge bearing on the future developments. The Taliban have forthwith rejected the authenticity of both Ghani’s presidency and the Afghan-US security pact as lacking authenticity and legitimacy.

A second aspect is that, paradoxically, neither of the two developments has quite come as a surprise. Any close observer of the run-off in the Afghan presidential election held in June would not seriously quarrel with an impression that formed almost from the outset as the votes began to be counted that one of the candidates, Dr Abdullah Abdullah, had all but begun speaking as the voice of the “opposition”.

Put differently, an impression inevitably gathered amidst the widely-acknowledged charges of correction, rigging and other practices in the conduct of the election, that Ghani’s election would be somehow a foregone conclusion, and what happened in the run-up to it was a mere shadow-play.

Again, an impression was formed that the US was the master of ceremonies on the political theatre. Karzai is on record that Washington was closely involved all along, although it studiously conveyed a public posture of non-interference. Indeed, once the controversy surfaced regarding the transparency and fairness in the conduct of the election, Washington raised its head above the parapet and began assuming a heavy presence appearing to overtly play the role of the monitor-cum-arbiter.

In fact, President Barack Obama himself stepped into the ring not less than three or four times and the Secretary of State John Kerry, visited Kabul twice. Kerry actually introduced the novel idea of a “national unity” government in Afghanistan, which today forms the very basis of the political transition.

Interestingly, Obama dealt directly with the two candidates involved in the runoff—Ghani and Abdullah—and he simply bypassed Karzai. Obama did not once talk with Karzai during the entire period since the controversy erupted over the run-off in June.

In sum, the US has decided on its own, exclusively, where to peg the “bar of democracy” in Afghanistan. Not even its closes ally, Britain, the mother of all democracies, would appear to have played any significant role.

This holds serious implications for the future. What comes to mind is the famous Pottery Barn rule splet out by the former US Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld—‘If you break it, you own it.’ Simply put, after having waded so deeply into the politicking leading to the formation of the national unity government in Kabul—having choreographed and piloted the idea, having, perhaps, imposed the idea on the reluctant Afghans—the ultimate responsibility—even obligation—rests now with the Obama Administration to ensure that the political arrangement survives and brings about the political stability that Afghanistan needs.

Most certainly, the Obama Administration faces a formidable challenge here. The only examples of national unity governments in contemporary world politics have been in Cambodia in 1993 and in Zimbabwe and Kenya in 2008, and they have not exactly been encouraging experiments.

Therefore, the really worrisome question is whether the Obama Administration is willing to play the kind of role envisaged in Rumsfeld’s wise opinion? Does the Obama Administration have the necessary attention-span—with so many distractions from Ebola virus to the Islamic State — making pressing demands on its time, energy and resources?

Clearly, the Ghani Government cannot be left as “America’s latest orphan” which, by the way, was the rubric of a recent seminar held at at the New York University’s Centre on Inter-national Cooperation with some of the best-known American experts as participants.

Speaking at the NYU seminar, Barnett Rubin, who had served as senior advisor to the special representative for AfPak, late Richard Holbrooke, ruefully noted, “The President’s [Obama’s] job description does not entail reforming and creating a new Afghanistan. The most important thing for stabilising a country is to maintain a sufficient level of funding to support the unity of the national government [in Kabul], and to build a coalition of regional powers that would be supportive of Afghanistan.”

Rubin warned: “Missions to stabilise and missions to counterterrorism cannot coexist, and, in my experience, the [US] mission to counter terrorism will always win. Yet we cannot ignore how the absence of a certified government or external funding has led to weak institutions.” Indeed, where is all that money to “stabilise” Afghanistan going to come from? Equally, it is an open secret that even if the US-Afghan pact had been delayed for a further period of time beyond 2014, the US would have found some way to avoid having to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan by the end of the year—that is to say, Obama (and NATO) never really had the so-called “zero option” in the consideration zone. In fact, the Obama Adminis-tration has come under heavy criticism already within America for having exercised the “zero option” in Iraq.

On the other hand, a closer examination of the US-Afghan security pact would raise many questions regarding the US’ interests. A widespread perception among the Afghan political class happens to be that the security pact would have as much, if not more, to do with the US’ regional strategies as Afghanistan’s national security needs.

President Obama has pledged that the strength of the US forces would be pegged at 9800 soldiers through 2015, which will be halved next year and tapered off to a token presence by end-2016. The thing that lends credibility to Obama’s pledge is that end-2016 coincides with the end of his presidency. On the contrary, a detailed examination of the security pact raises serious doubts about the efficacy of Obama’s stated plans of troop withdrawal.

Ambiguity as Strategy

Writing on the subject of “foreign troops” a few months ago, the well-known Guardian columnist and editor, Seumas Milne, observed: “It’s almost never discussed in the political mainstream. But thousands of foreign troops have now been stationed in Britain for more than 70 years. There’s been nothing like it since the Norman invasion. With the 15-month Dutch occupation of London in 1688-89 a distant competitor, there has been no precedent since 1066 for the presence of American forces in a string of military bases for the better part of a century.”

The case of Germany where American bases were established following World War II is even more curious. Forty two US military installa-tions still exist in Germany 70 years after the war ended and even after the “enemy” vanished —the Soviet Union.

This is also the most intriguing question that no one is prepared to answer regarding the US-Afghan pact, known popularly as the Bilateral Security Agreement or the BSA, which was signed in Kabul on September 30. What explains the long-term military presence of a superpower on foreign soil?

The pact itself—titled “Security and Defence Cooperation Agreement between the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the United States of America”—says it is valid “until the end of 2024 and beyond”. It remains in vogue ad infinitum unless either side calls for its abrogation with a two-year advance notice.

The pact is quintessentially a garrisoning deal and it suggests that the Afghan war will last at least another decade. The explicit purpose of the BSA is to permit the US to continue training Afghanistan’s nearly 350,000 security forces (which would probably be slashed by a third to about 228,000). But, obviously, the pact is also implicitly a hedge against an outright Taliban takeover militarily in Afghanistan. On the outer side, it meshes with the US’ war on terrorism and it additionally says, the mission of the US forces will be to “enhance the ability of Afghanistan to deter internal and external threats against its sovereignty”.

An annexure to the pact lists nine major land and air bases where the US forces will have exclusive access—Bagram, Kabul, Mazar-i-Sharif, Gardez, Jalalabad, Kandahar, Helmand, Shindand and Herat. The location of the bases suggests that the US forces will have reach all over Afghanistan’s territory.

The US-Afghan pact does not specify a ceiling on the American troop strength remaining in Afghanistan, while the NATO-Afghan pact specifically allows for 4000 to 5000 troops remaining in the country after 2014. The US President, Barack Obama, has unilaterally decided that 9800 American troops will be stationed through 2015. That is to say, the total number of foreign troops immediately remaining in the country could be notionally up to 14,800. But then, there are some ambiguities.

Three interesting points are to be noted here. First, the US-Afghan pact does not prevent the augmentation of the American force strength and it is the prerogative of the incumbent American President or his successor(s) to ramp the troop levels back up if they decide such a move is warranted in the US interests.

Second, according to estimations by senior Pakistani experts credited with links to the establishment, there is also going to be a big contingent of some 30,000 military contractors who would remain stationed and that at least half of them would comprise American troops. Indeed, the pact specifically provides for the facilities and privileges for these contractors, which are to be almost on par with the regular troops except for their culpability in committing any crimes under Afghan laws.

Now, it is a well-documented fact that the Pentagon had in the past few years begun a practice of sub-contracting a variety of operations on the Afghan war theatre, including combat missions, to contractors, many of whom are retired military or intelligence personnel of the highest calibre such as having served in the Special Forces. There has been a protracted war of words between the Americans and Kabul that these so-called military contractors had acted outside the pale of legitimacy even by the standards of a brutal war such as the war against the Taliban.

The Pakistani sources have also revealed that the US has been in touch with Pakistan “over its plans to maintain its military presence in Afghanistan for the long term”. Indeed, the terms of the pact regarding the privileges accorded to the US troops immunities from Afghan laws, etc. which have been fleshed out at great length, are on par with Pentagon’s standard agreements for establishing military bases in foreign countries such as Japan or South Korea.

The US keeps maintaining it does not intend to establish military bases in Afghanistan. But much sophistry goes into such pledges and affirmations. For instance, the US troops are based in military bases in Britain that are misleadingly named “RAF this or that, but effectively under full American control: Lakenheath, Croughton, Mildenhall and Molesworth among others along with the National Security Agency and missile defence bases such as Menwith Hill in Yorkshire”. This is, according to Spencer Ackerman, National Security Editor of Guardian US.

Finally, although the US mission is ostensibly to train the Afghan forces, the security pact also says that the American troops could be involved in counterterrorism operations “to complement and support” those of the Afghan Government forces. Again, while the pact is not a classic defence pact explicitly committing the US to defend Afghanistan in the event of an external aggression, it goes to considerable lengths in Article 6 of the BSA to spell out the response to an external aggression.

Article 6 says, inter alia, that the US and Afghanistan shall enter into consultations “to develop a list of political, diplomatic, military and economic measures” that could form an appropriate response in the event of an aggre-ssion and that such consultations will be on a “regular basis”.

All in all, the pact de facto legitimises the establishment of American military bases in Afghanistan—nine in number to begin with, but with the provision for additional bases if need be—spread throughout the country where an unspecified number of US troops will be stationed—to begin with, close to some 40,000 personnel (including “contractors” engaged by the Pentagon)—on an open-ended basis.

Quite obviously, it may seem that despite the window-dressing that it’s the “end of the combat mission” for the US forces in Afghanistan, that may not be the case in reality. In fact, a Deutsche Welle commentary assessed: “Combat troops are to remain in the country, too—officially as protection for the trainers and logistics experts. The Taliban have already announced they will continue their fight until the last western soldier has left the country. So inevitably, the military will be involved in the anti-terror fight. The military presence and its cooperation with Afghan troops—hopefully loyal to the government—may calm some areas medium term. But true peace for Afghanistan is in the distant future, a forward-looking strategy nowhere in sight.”

Prima facie, this German assessment implies that the Americans are on the one hand duping themselves and their European allies into believing that the Afghan war is over and done with, while on the other hand conveying a false impression to the region that the US military presence in Afghanistan is ending, finally and conclusively.

Yet, this would appear to be a flawed German assessment insofar as Washington faces genuine difficulties, due to a variety of factors, to continue with a virtually open-ended combat mission in Afghanistan. The US public opinion militates against the continuance of the Afghan war; the US’ major allies in Europe are genuinely averse to continuing with the war; and, above all, the cost of the war has become unaffordable over a long term.

However, on the other hand, the incontr-overtible reality is that there is indeed a long-term American military presence shaping up in Afghanistan, and, the establishment of military bases (including such massive ones as Bagram, Shindand or Kandahar) is way past the needs of some 1500 American trainers and the auxiliary forces supporting them and/or providing them with logistics.

To be sure, a yawning gap has appeared in the credibility of the US’ stated positions. Coupled with the extraordinary privileges extracted from Kabul under the pact for the upkeep of the American trainers and the auxiliary forces, a widespread opinion among the Afghan people is available today that Washington’s objectives go far beyond the territory of their country or its security and may even be primarily aiming to serve the US’ regional policies and its strategic interests.

Of course, this inchoate fear—shared to some extent by the region as well—was precisely what the outgoing President, Hamid Karzai, articulated when he openly rendered his parting advice to the successor regime to beware of the American intentions.

Ambassador M.K. Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.