Leaving Afghanistan

What happens when U.S. troops depart in 2014?

With the Taliban showing no signs of giving up their fight to topple the Afghan government, Afghanistan and the United States are currently attempting to negotiate the terms of a strategic partnership to determine the future of America’s military presence in Afghanistan.

Currently, the International Security Assistance Force’s (ISAF) 130,000 troops, 90,000 of whom are Americans, is scheduled to withdraw from Afghanistan by the end of 2014, at which time security of the country will fall into the hands of Afghan security forces.

Among the myriad of issues to be resolved is the number, if any, of American troops who would remain in Afghanistan beyond the scheduled pullout date and under what conditions they would operate.

It is believed that Afghan officials are looking for an international force of at least 20,000 troops to remain behind in Afghanistan after the 2014 deadline in order to provide support to the approximately 350,000 Afghan security forces.

So, in order to strengthen his political hand in the ongoing negotiations with the United States, Afghan President Hamid Karzai recently called upon a loya jirga, or grand council, consisting of over 2,000 Afghan tribal and village leaders for its support.

In particular, Karzai sought the loya jirga’s approval to negotiate a long-term security pact with the United States that contained a set of preconditions laid down by the Afghan president, including terminating American night raid operations, placing the Afghan government in charge of all insurgent detainees, and limiting the length of the pact to 10 years.

As an unelected body, the loya jirga is prohibited by the Afghan Constitution from making legally binding decisions, yet it nevertheless ended its four days of deliberations in the Afghan capital of Kabul by giving Karzai near unanimous approval to negotiate a security pact laden with his prerequisites.

While the loya jirga’s decision was met with favor by Karzai, not everyone in Afghanistan registered the same enthusiasm. In fact, a number of key Afghan figures, such as Karzai’s main rival, Abdullah Abdullah, and former ally, Abdul Rashid Dostum, had boycotted the loya jirga, deeming it unconstitutional and capable of fomenting greater conflict.

Those concerns were immediately on display after the loya jirga had announced its support of negotiations when nearly 1,000 demonstrators took to Afghan streets burning effigy’s of Barrack Obama and demanding an end to the American presence in Afghanistan.

Not surprisingly, the Taliban also took displeasure with the loya jirga by quickly issuing a statement that read in part, “We believe that (the agreement) was already designed by the Americans and only used the name of loya jirga to announce it.”

In fact, the Taliban had signaled its displeasure weeks earlier by issuing stringent warnings that those attending the loya jirga were supporting a long-term US presence in Afghanistan and would be considered “traitors” and “deserving of harsh penalties.”

Those penalties first surfaced days before the opening of the assembly when a suspected suicide bomber carrying a bag of explosives was shot dead near the jirga venue. Then, the day after the meeting opened, Taliban insurgents fired two rockets at the conference site, although no one was killed or injured in the attack.

Of course, the Taliban had reacted similarly to another loya jirga convened by Karzai in June 2010 to discuss possible reconciliation talks with the Taliban, an overture to which the Taliban responded by having its fighters, clad in suicide vests, launch rocket attacks against the attendees.

Since that point, efforts to engage the Taliban in peace talks have further deteriorated as the insurgents infiltrated the ranks of Afghan security forces and conducted a series of assassinations against an array of high-level government and security officials.

These deadly attacks included the suicide bomb assassinations of Ahmed Wali Karzai, half-brother to Hamid Karzai in July 2011 and Afghanistan’s top peace negotiator and former president, Burhanuddin Rabbani, in September 2011.

So, while the current loya jirga may have displeased Afghan political leaders, protesters and the Taliban, it may have also helped serve to alienate the United States.

In particular, the United States military has chafed at the demand that it terminate its Special Operations Forces night raids targeting insurgent leaders, facilitators and bomb-makers. Coalition forces carry out hundreds of such night operations a month, which they claim are an effective way to keep pressure on militants.

Most of the night raids are conducted with Afghan security forces, but according to General Curtis Scaparrotti, commander of ISAF’s Joint Command, the fledgling Afghan security forces don’t yet have the capacity to execute such raids alone.

While the status of night raid operations may still be a resolvable issue, less so is the increasing belief that President Obama’s policy toward Afghanistan is being dictated squarely on how it affects his re-election prospects in November 2012.

After all, a lukewarm effort by Obama to negotiate an extension of US troops in Iraq beyond 2011 makes it seems unlikely that he will go the extra mile to extend an American presence in Afghanistan beyond 2014.

For starters, Obama has already planned to withdraw by September 2012 the 33,000 troops he sent to Afghanistan in 2009 as part of a surge in forces. That decision was met unfavorably by then-ISAF commander General David Petraeus, who had argued at the time to limit the initial withdrawal to 3,000 to 4,000 as to not risk undermining the war on the ground.

Now, reports are beginning to surface that American generals are beginning to worry that Obama is planning to accelerate the 2014 timetable by removing more than the 33,000 surge forces. As one NATO official has said, the chances of the remaining American force in 2012 staying at 68,000 are “marginal at best.”

To be fair, if Obama is indeed intent on hastening a withdrawal from Afghanistan, that view is increasingly being shared by growing widespread unhappiness at home over the ten year war. That discontent raised its head recently when a bi-partisan group of US Senators called on President Obama to accelerate the 2014 timetable.

As one of the Senators, Republican Rand Paul, explained, “We cannot continue endless nation-building efforts overseas while here at home we face expounding national debt, crumbling infrastructure and out-of-control spending in Washington.”

For his part, President Obama recently declared that it is still necessary to “see the job through in Afghanistan,” while US Ambassador to Afghanistan, Ryan Crocker, has said, 2014 “is not the date when the United States and the international community just walks away from Afghanistan.”

Of course, many Afghans are understandably nervous of what will happen if the US walks away from Afghanistan. According to the UN, the number of Afghans killed by Taliban and al-Qaeda insurgents in 2011 was nearly 1,000.

In November alone, 11 people, including six children, died in a roadside bombing; 7 civilians were killed and 17 others wounded in a suicide attack at a mosque in Baghlan province; and seven children were killed by two roadside bombs in the southern province of Uruzgan.

Yet, according to ISAF commander, General John Allen, despite the insurgent terror attacks, coalition forces “have taken back key Taliban territory across Afghanistan in 2011 and are continuing to hold it, allowing security conditions to continue to improve.”

However, the absence of firm and specific American commitments beyond 2014 seem likely to make those security improvements at best temporary in nature, something nearly 3,000 American and Coalition soldiers have died trying to prevent.

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