Zero Option Kabul

The war in Afghanistan isn’t ending, it’s just changing gears, and much like the Chinese curse, 2014 is shaping up to be a very interesting year. On the one hand, the Afghans are going to the polls for the third time since the US forced democracy down their tribal throats.
But the Afghan Taliban who over the last half decade have seen a major resurgence in both popularity and territorial gains, are going to be boycotting not only the electoral process, but also the future government in Kabul! According to Afghan experts, the Afghan Taliban have the support of nearly 30 percent of the population: representing roughly two-thirds of the total Pakhtun population. Any election boycotted by a party with nearly one-third population support is surely not representative. So much for a step towards democracy.
On the other hand, the continued US presence in Afghanistan post-2014 is not confirmed and is looking increasingly unlikely. The bone of contention between the two countries is disagreement over which prosecution laws would be applicable on US troops. This was the same reason the US forces abruptly pulled out of Iraq – with disastrous effects. The issue isn’t of immunity from prosecution, but rather of where the prosecution happens.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai has put the decision to the Loya Jirga, which had previously given a green signal to a partnership between Washington and Kabul nearly two years ago. However, with elections around the corner, this decision may tilt for short-term political gains. Hamid Karzai could be trying to position himself as the saviour of Afghanistan, seeing the US leave under his watch. Another major problem is that Karzai has been pushing for a mutual defence treaty similar to those between Washington and its major non-Nato allies. More specifically, the Afghan president is asking for protection against Pakistan, in case of cross-border attacks. And interestingly enough, this is where the US has drawn a line. In the regional context, Pakistan is now far more important/dangerous than Afghanistan.
And even if the Loya Jirga endorses continued US presence, there is a discord between the military and the civilian government on the number of troops to be left behind. When talk of this agreement started nearly two years ago, the working figure was between 20,000 and 30,000. As things stand today, the figure being discussed is less than 10,000.
The size of Nato presence is also directly linked to the Americans – a smaller number from Washington will mean a smaller number from Nato. The idea of this enduring force was to continue building the capacity of the Afghan National Army, having emergency backup support including medical evacuations, logistics and intelligence coordination, and of course, most importantly, to have a strike team in place to continue actions against Al-Qaeda and the Haqqani network. But 10,000 troops is a negligible number in the face of a resurgent Taliban spread across the country.
As things stand today, this force will only be able to secure Kabul and will most likely not venture into regions like the Loya Paktia in eastern Afghanistan, stronghold of the Haqqani network, or in the southern cities of Helmand and Kandahar, both Taliban strongholds.
The truth is that the US is fed up of Afghanistan. For the longest time, there has been talk about how the biggest threat to the US isn’t from Afghanistan, but from its neighbour. However, the US has been unwilling to repeat its drop-and-disappear act from the late 1980s, and has been searching for a respectable way to end its Afghan misadventure. However, with Karzai being Karzai and the Taliban breaking off any chance of negotiations, Washington’s face-saving attempt doesn’t seem likely anymore.
The zero option is now fully on the cards. And as much as one hates to admit it, thus far Afghanistan is in no position to govern or defend itself. The US/Nato forces must stay on, and ensure that: a) a relatively clean and democratic handover of power occurs in the presidential elections scheduled for April 2014; b) the Taliban are unable to disrupt these elections; and c) the capacity building of the ANA is accelerated to a point where they are in a position to defend not just Kabul, but other major urban centres of the country. If any of these points aren’t guaranteed, one must ask Washington: what have the last ten, twelve years been about?
Afghanistan’s been in a perpetual state of war since the Soviet invasion. Through the decades, the nature of the violence has changed, as has the enemy. The only constant has been violence. All that Messrs Hamid Karzai and co have been able to achieve has been some semblance of governance in Kabul and its surrounding areas. However, of late, that glass has repeatedly been shattered by the Haqqani network.
In all likelihood, the following events will occur in Afghanistan: a token US/Nato presence may continue to be stationed in the country, and will be the constant target of attacks by the Taliban and its allies. This token force will be unable to ably support the ANA as it also comes under fire. While the ANA may be able to defend Kabul, the rest of the country – most specifically eastern and southern Afghanistan – will remain beyond government control.
This vacuum will allow groups like Al-Qaeda, who have been allbput routed from Afghanistan to return and set up shop. In case the elections do take place, there is also the likelihood that parties other than the Taliban cry foul and discredit the government.
To summarise, another civil war awaits Afghanistan. And it’s no surprise that refugee organisations here in Pakistan have quietly started preparing for a major influx of Afghans escaping the violence next year.