President Obama has finally announced his much-awaited plan of withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan in a tele vised address on Wednesday, June 22, 2011. According to the plan, 10,000 American troops will be withdrawn from Afghanistan by the end of 2011 with another 23,000 set to be evacuated by September 2012. The number of American troops, who have been shouldering most of the fighting burden, currently stands at around 100,000 soldiers. The withdrawal of 33,000 soldiers would leave around 70,000 troops in Afghanistan by September 2012.
Other countries contributing troops in Afghanistan, the most important of which, are the European countries such as the U.K., Germany and France have made it clear that they will not stay engaged in the war against Taliban beyond 2014. The Obama Administration's announcement has come as a relief to the war-weary Europeans. They have anxiously been waiting for the day when the U.S. would announce its troop withdrawals. Immediately after Obama's announcement, British Prime Minister, David Cameron, also said that his country would end its involvement in the war against Taliban by the end of 2014. Germany and France too have announced that they will also start their withdrawals this year parallel to the plan of handing over the entire security responsibilities to Afghan forces by the end of 2014.
The U.S. and European countries' rush towards an exit from the war against terror, which has indeed turned into a quagmire of sorts, is unjustified, given the realities both on the ground inside Afghanistan and the unfavorable geo-political climate in the broader region. Instead the Western coalition particularly the U.S. should announce firmly that any troop withdrawal in the future will be tied to the actual progress on the ground in Afghanistan towards ending the war and bringing durable stability. Such a commitment to Afghanistan by the Western coalition, no doubt, will be very expensive politically, militarily and financially. However, turning backs on such a longer-term commitment to the cause of a stable and peaceful Afghanistan might very well spell disaster for Afghanistan and open another chapter of chaos and conflict inside the country. Let us take a closer look at the finer details of the situation and how the Western idea of an end-game for Afghanistan might play out rather differently from what they expect.
The whole plan of withdrawal and disengagement from Afghanistan by the Western coalition led by the U.S. is built on these assumptions that an eventual conciliatory deal with the Taliban will bring the war to an end, the Afghan security forces will keep and enforce the peace and a small contingent of American troops in permanent/long term military bases and armed with predator drones and superior fire power will guard against the return of Al-Qaeda and other international terror organizations to Afghanistan. Such a scenario, however, is too far-fetched, difficult to achieve and yet more difficult to sustain over the long-term. To begin with, the Western coalition and especially the U.S.'s optimism regarding the positive outcome of the peace talks are misplaced and out of sync with the realities of today's Afghanistan.
It is too optimistic to believe that the Taliban as the largest insurgent group in Afghanistan can finally be persuaded to agree to terms of a peace deal and made to relinquish arms and insurgency in return for a share in the government. There would have been hopes for such an outcome if the government in Kabul and the international coalition present in the country approached the Taliban from a position of strength and if the right kind of regional consensus over the issue would have been built. By announcing far and wide their intention to walk away from an unfinished war, the international coalition takes away the Taliban's incentive to seriously negotiate for a political settlement. If anything, now and with the apparent Western rush towards the exit door, the Taliban, more than before, feel secure in their belief that the fate of the war will be determined at the barrel of the gun rather than at the negotiation table. Therefore, a withdrawal plan that is not tied to the actual level of progress on the ground in Afghanistan has the effect of further complicating the problems, emboldening the Taliban and actually leaving Afghanistan more vulnerable to interference by its neighbors.
Another well-established fact that renders impossible the western plans for the post-2014 Afghanistan is that contrary to Western beliefs, Taliban as a fanatical ethno-religious entity are not ready to compromise and over the long-term will not stop short of re-establishing their rule as they did in 1990s. Towards this objective and as Afghanistan history has shown, any type of peace deal with a strong Taliban, even if achieved, will be at best temporary and may easily collapse much so in the absence of the international coalition inside Afghanistan. The Western coalition led by the U.S. should keep such realities of Afghanistan into perspective if they are truly interested in preventing Afghanistan from descending into yet another era of chaos and conflict.
The key to Afghanistan's stabilization, preservation of past achievements and prevention of yet another chapter of turmoil lies in reaching a genuine regional and international consensus by way of much greater regional consultation and collaboration. President Karzai is attending an international conference on terrorism in Tehran which is an initiative of the government of Iran. Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran will also hold a trilateral meeting in Tehran. Such regional initiatives aimed at greater regional consultation and cooperation on the issue of Afghanistan and terrorism are welcome steps towards bringing about better regional understanding and confidence. Stabilization of Afghanistan and resolution of the conflict, however, requires a major diplomatic push to bring together all the regional countries and international stakeholders in Afghanistan. The leadership of the U.S. in the process would be, nonetheless, essential since the U.S. possesses the diplomatic and political capital needed to bring together all the stakeholders, both regional and trans-regional. The role and contribution of The U.S., Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Russia, and China and of course other NATO member states are all absolutely essential to bringing lasting and durable stability to Afghanistan. Unfortunately, these countries have so far been locked in a state of perpetual enmity towards one another and have failed to render the kind of historic responsibility that they have towards Afghanistan and its success. This has been painfully revealed by recent American attempts to exclude Afghanistan and Pakistan and the rest from the negotiation process with the Taliban. If this kind of approach to peace talks continues, durable peace in Afghanistan will remain a mirage.