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Afghanistan 2014: post NATO

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As the first day of the New Year dawned across the world, so did the realisation that 2014 is the year in which the US-led international coalition is due to depart, after its continuous presence since October 2001. The first weeks of this year brought something of a 'ground rush', as foreign governments - those involved in the coalition (including the UAE), those in neighbouring countries and other parties interested in the region, including Russia, India and China - consider Afghanistan's future. Their principal concern is the status, capability and likelihood of the Taliban returning in strength to re-take the country it controlled from 1996 to 2001 and what effect this could have upon the continuing economic and social development of Afghanistan.  Underlying this, the debate is predicated on the likelihood of President Hamid Karzai signing a US-Afghan bilateral security agreement.

If successful, this accord will allow for a small number of US forces to remain in Afghanistan, primarily involved in training and mentoring Afghan forces, but also providing a Quick Reaction Force capability to support the Afghan military. Less publicly acknowledged is the American government's desire to maintain its drone campaign in the region and Special Forces (SF) capability in Afghanistan, to enable the US to continue efforts to suppress the Taliban, al-Qaeda and any other extremist franchisees in the region, notably in Pakistan, but also potentially those in other contiguous states.

Despite the evidence of the drone campaign having suppressed, and even diminished, the Taliban and al-Qaeda, the Afghan President has become increasingly prone, not only to condemning drone operations, but also accusing the US of perpetuating the war through their use. This was highlighted on Friday 17 January , when 21 people, including 13 foreigners (including senior figures from the UN, IMF and NATO negotiators), were killed in a bomb and shooting attack on the Taverna du Libana, a popular restaurant frequented by foreigners in Kabul, for which the Taliban claimed responsibility as retaliation for an airstrike which had killed eight people the previous week. President Karzai condemned the Kabul attack, but also seemed to suggest that it was a justifiable retaliation for the earlier US drone strike: "The war on terror will bear fruit when victims and terrorists are distinguished from each other and the elements of terror are fought against."

At present, the proposed bilateral security agreement remains in limbo since negotiations stalled at the close of last year. Evidence emerged in early February that Karzai is continuing to attempt to negotiate directly with the Taliban and has reportedly conducted negotiations in Dubai and Riyadh. But it remains unclear as to exactly what is being discussed and who their representatives are. This has been a considerable sticking point throughout the various attempts at negotiations over the years: who has the mandate, responsibility and authorisation to make and demand concessions and, more critically, who can ensure the discipline and adherence of the Taliban to any negotiated settlement?
If the agreement is not signed, the US fears that a 'zero option', similar to what happened in Iraq, will result: the total withdrawal of all military forces and the effective abandonment of Afghanistan by the international community. There are some in the US who are beginning to see this option as desirable; US President Barack Obama's former defence secretary, Robert Gates claimed in his recent memoirs that Obama had "..no stomach for the Afghan war.." and added that he "...doesn't consider the war to be his. For him, it's all about getting out."  Recent polling evidence suggests that ordinary Americans are tired of foreign interventions. According to a CNN survey released last month, 82% of the US public are against continuing the military engagement in Afghanistan.  This compares with only 46% five years ago. Maintaining an expensive (both in terms of US lives and financially) presence in Afghanistan is unpopular in a country suffering its own austerity. By pulling out of Afghanistan entirely, Obama will be able to claim that he has ended US involvement.  However, there is also concern in Washington that if there is no bilateral agreement, the US will accused of cutting and running.  Moreover, it will raise serious questions about the whole justification for the cost in blood and treasure expended over the last 12 years.  Recently, an unnamed senior White House diplomat observed that "Even by his standards, Karzai has completely overreached himself. He thinks that the West needs him more than vice versa, but that's just not true. He doesn't realise how fed up everyone is with Afghanistan and him." Meanwhile, Karzai continues to describe America and the international coalition as colonialists and occupiers and claims that their endeavours to bring peace and democracy to Afghanistan have been a failure; a waste of time and effort, evincing little empathy or gratitude to the personnel who have lost their lives, or suffered life-changing injuries. Moreover, he recently likened the bilateral security agreement to the Treaty of Gandamak, a one-sided 1879 agreement that ceded frontier lands to the British administration in India and gave it tacit control over Afghan foreign policy, thus offering little hope that he considered the bilateral security agreement to be agreeable and viable and ready to be signed imminently.

Almost regardless of whether the bilateral security agreement is signed or not, there remain tangible fears amongst the international community that key regions of Afghanistan will fall to the Taliban soon after the main elements of the NATO coalition depart at the end of this year and many fear that the government may fall soon after. Some key British military analysts, such as Colonel Richard Williams, former commander of the UK's Special Air Service, fully expect that the future governor of Helmand, the region where most British troops fought and died, will be closely connected with the Taliban, if not openly backed by them. Williams and Lord Ashdown, a British peer, politician and former Royal Marine officer, suggest that this is tantamount to collective failure - and an insult to the 447 British servicemen who died in the Afghan conflict. General Sir David Richards, the former UK Chief of Defence Staff, agrees that without the accord, the ability of the Afghan military to mount counter-insurgency operations without the training and support from NATO mentors would be significantly diminished. However, he acknowledged that, even with NATO support, there would be occasions when the occupation of certain areas by the Taliban would constitute a "..long-term strategy of accommodation.." which, whilst perhaps unpalatable to some in the international community, would be an inevitable consequence of bringing the Taliban into the political process, which is still seen as essential if lasting peace is to be secured.
The paradox is that if President Karzai finally decides not to sign the bilateral agreement with the US, the decision of the Afghan people whether or not to allow the Taliban a place in the political arena may be denied to them, and it may be enforced instead.  Despite the largely negative Afghan narrative that prevails in the majority of the international media, Afghanistan has come a long way in terms of economic development and equality of opportunity since 2001.  The fear is that if the country collapses as a result of a 'zero option' withdrawal, not only will trillions of dollars and thousands of lives have been expended for little gain, but Afghanistan would once again become a failed state with likely consequences not only for central Asia but also for the Middle East, China, Russia, Europe and even North America.  

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