Viewpoint: Strategy shift for smooth Afghan transition

Afghan man Ahmad watching pigeons fly in Kabul, 3 October 2012 A more visionary approach could help bring a peaceful outcome in Afghanistan

As Nato forces prepare to exit Afghanistan in 2014, the relevant players need to change tactics to ensure a peaceful future for the country, writes Ahmed Rashid.

Around the world and even in Afghanistan, there is an epic level of despondency and despair about the country's future, as US and Nato forces prepare to leave by 2014.

Pundits and politicians, as well as think-tanks and military officers have been full of doom and gloom. They predict continuing civil war, ethnic strife and the fragmentation of the Afghan army. They also see hordes of hungry Afghans streaming across borders, the unrest spreading to Pakistan and Central Asia.

Afghans themselves are voting with their feet. The wealthy are buying apartments in Dubai and government ministers are moving their families out.

Such analyses and fears are very similar to what happened in 1989 before the Soviet troops departed.

I was one of few journalists who at the time dismissed the US CIA assessment that the Afghan communist regime would last just three weeks.

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There is no rocket science involved - all these issues have been talked about and discussed for years in countless forums what is needed now is implementation”

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Then too there were predictions about civil war, the army fragmenting, the break-up of the country and ethnic bloodshed.

In fact, the communist government lasted three years and only fell apart when its main benefactor, the Soviet Union, collapsed.

Today there are still alternatives to a better future if all the players realise the gravity of the situation and adopt strategies, with the major aim of stabilising Afghanistan and the region rather than cutting corners and concentrating on the military aspects of withdrawal.

Internal rivalries

The most important required change is for Washington to have a more strategic vision than it has shown so far.

Despite this summer's bloody Taliban offensive, I still firmly believe that the Taliban do not want the continuation of the war beyond 2014, nor do they want to seize total power.

Yet the Obama administration, beset by internal rivalries, has refused to prioritise the on-off two-year-long dialogue it has had with the Taliban.

The US military has failed to offer meaningful, confidence-building measures that could reduce the conflict and taper down the violence from both the US and the Taliban side.

The next US president will have 18 months to make talking to the Taliban his number one priority and aiming for a ceasefire with them before 2014.

File photo: Afghan President Hamid Karzai Mr Karzai has work to do before the 2014 presidential elections

This is only possible if the US has the will and a comprehensive strategy that brings in neighbouring powers, the UN and all the Afghan factions.

Moreover, the US and Nato also have to ensure a detailed dialogue with the Afghan government on constitutional and legal issues which will ensure a fair, fraud-free presidential election in 2014.

Likewise, President Hamid Karzai has to prioritise preparations for the elections which are way behind schedule - a move that is only intensifying speculation about his true intentions.

Filling the empty places in the Independent Election Commission, the Supreme Court and registering voters all need to happen in the next eight weeks.

Security crisis

Mr Karzai has to build confidence through a national consensus with parliament, leaders of major ethnic groups and the warlords to agree on the terms and conditions for the election, but there is no sign as yet that he is doing so.

The longer he delays the preparations for elections, the weaker he will become internally in the months ahead.

The potential crisis within the 350,000 security forces, which suffer from 90% illiteracy and a 20% desertion rate, as well as the recent killings of Nato soldiers by Afghan soldiers, need to be rapidly addressed.

File photo: US troops US and Nato troops are scheduled to leave Afghanistan in 2014

Recent recruits deemed dangerous need to be quickly re-vetted, while the government needs to foster a national spirit in the army and inspire the officer corps.

Mr Karzai has so far failed to take sufficient interest in building up the army esprit de corps. Serious US-Taliban talks could also lead to a dramatic reduction in such deaths because clearly, many of these killings are orchestrated by the Taliban.

The US and Mr Karzai have also failed to build what Mr Obama promised in 2008 - a regional consensus among Afghanistan's neighbours not to interfere in the country's internal affairs after 2014.

With present US tensions with Pakistan and Iran - its two most influential neighbours - building such a consensus needs to be farmed out to the United Nations or any other global body as quickly as possible.

Taking initiative

The Pakistan military and its Interservices Intelligence (ISI), which decide on Pakistan's Afghan policy also need to change their attitude, as most Taliban leaders live in Pakistan and fuel the insurgency from there.

Rather than sit on the sidelines until 2014, the Pakistani military needs to take the initiative, pushing the Taliban into talks, containing their activities and logistics and giving them a deadline by which they must return home.

But this cannot be done in isolation without the US military also winding down their military operations.

More than any other neighbour, Pakistan has the ability to both ensure a final settlement or to sabotage one. There are signs that the Pakistan military is ever so slowly trying to change course. Productive discussions have taken place between army chief, Gen Ashfaq Kayani, and senior US officials.

File photo: Afghan soldier holding country's flag Afghanistan needs to build a regional consensus with its neighbours

But the military also needs to understand the overwhelming dislike of Pakistan that now affects Afghans of all political stripes, including the Taliban.

The army must act humbly and in a modest way that genuinely places the Afghan government in the driving seat.

Until now Islamabad has produced bluster and rhetoric about helping the peace process, but in reality it has delivered little.

Iran needs to be quickly bought into dialogue despite the tensions between Tehran and the West over its nuclear program.

If the US is unable to talk to the Iranians, others like trusted Nato allies who have a dialogue with Tehran or the UN can do so.

Clearly what is needed for a peaceful outcome by 2014 is a change in strategy, tactics and a more visionary approach by all players.

Although recognising that many of these desirable policy changes are still a wish list, all of them can be relatively easily implemented.

There is no rocket science involved. All these issues have been talked about and discussed for years in countless forums. What is needed now is implementation.

The players need to trust each other and help fulfil the political rather than the military needs of the next 18 months.

Above all, the next US president needs to make a peaceful Afghan settlement his top foreign policy agenda and Mr Karzai needs to prepare his departure with grace, elegance and consensus.

That way he goes down in history books as the father of modern-day Afghanistan, living at peace with itself and its neighbours.

Ahmed Rashid's book, Taliban, was updated and reissued recently on the 10th anniversary of its publication. His latest book is Pakistan on the Brink: The future of Pakistan, Afghanistan and the West.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 21.


    For those who can't work it out, the 1st paragraph is not refering to Afghanistan

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    The armed forces in Afghanistan has prevented their obsession with causing harm to western countries. To date the terrorists have been kept occupied defending their own country, once the forces leave they will spread out around the world to start their murderous terrorist acts again.
    Our boys have done a very good job, we should all be grateful they risk their lives for our freedom.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.


    Whether you are outraged or not, soldiers, security forces or civilians who break the law and kill innocent victims must answer for their crimes.

    British soldiers are the best trained soldiers in the world, and when soldiers slip from these high standards it taints the reputation of all forces in Afghanistan.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    The strategy seems to e one of placating the Taliban with examples like the arrest of the UK soldiers, in the hope of securing a few cherries for the final negotiated deal. Here in the UK the unwavering support for the Taliban from our anarchists, left wing extremists, and many in the mainstream media, must be considered vital too. Tough of the women there, but our feminists have other priorities

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    The Koran, does not support the attempted murder of a child wanting education or the abuse of a handicapped child. Any connection between those who do and Islam is purely cosmetic. Simply growing a beard, chanting and abusing others who do not share extremist views does not an Islamic make. Until those who claim the faith stand up and actively repudiate such people the cycle of violence will go on

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    The arrest of the 5 marines may change the tolerance of the UK population to a long drawn out (smooth) transition

    I am outraged by the arrests

    Politicians stick soldiers in incredibly difficult situations, with morally & practically complicated rules of engagement expecting common soldiers to behave like lawyers in the safety of a risk free courtroom !

    If I were a soldier I would feel let down

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    One reasons why the country will slip straight back to the Taliban. When it was "reported" that the west had disrespected the Prophet, there were riots on the streets and people were murdered, When a child with Downs syndrome was locked up in prison and a 12 year old girl shot in the head for wanting to go to school, silence. Says it all really

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    I agree with others on HYS. The Taliban will take over Afghanistan when the UK and other forces pull out. The UN should then treat Afghanistan as a pariah state and force out a regime that shoots girls who want to go to school. Unfortunately, as lots of UN nations are corrupt and have litle or no concern with basic human rights, I shan't hold my breath.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    the taliban can only operate with the blessing and co-operation of pakistan and iran so whatever these governments wants is what will happen next

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    They first need to build a big ditch between Afghanistan and Pakistan because that`s where a lot of the trouble is coming from and those are a lot of the people that we`re fighting.There was never going to be a solution in Afghanistan without solving Pakistan first.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    Whatever exit strategy is used the end results will be the same. The Afghan police & military will already be infiltrated by actual Taliban & supporters. When we pull out it is just a matter of time before Afghanistan is back under Taliban control. As with the Russians, they will look on it as just a a blip in their long term control. Sadly the real war criminals, B & B, will never be tried.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    We should never have gone into Afghanistan. The war has no public support and never has had. This is a war made by Tony Blair wanting to big it up with the Yanks. Our troops should be brought home from Afghanistan and every other middle eastern country and leave the lot to rot in their own culture.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    Not our problem. Leave them to rot. The worst thing Blair did was start a war with the Taliban.

  • Comment number 8.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    All the taliban needs to do, is sit and wait till we leave, then they will take over again. If we could not do the job properly to its end, we should not have gone.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    Why such a backward thinking country with ill educated people is in this position is a mystery, but at least we can bring the armed forces back now.

    We can leave the Afghans ( who have no oil or minerals to protect) to their own devices and systems.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    The West could have stopped Afghanistan being a threat to Western security at a fraction of the cost. Most of the lives we have lost have been in trying to transform their society, maintain civil security and improve the lot of the people. If all that comes crashing down after 2014 then it will be down to the fact that not enough Afghans wanted it enough to fight for it themselves.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    We should just get out and leave the Afghans to get on with it. It would be great if there could be peace for the Afghan people but given that the place is crawling with religious nazis who are determined to impose their way of life on everyone and shoot little girls in the head because she dared to speak out against them, it doesn`t seem likely to happen

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    Allow them to join the EU. It's apparently a prizewinner for peace.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    Unfortunately, I don't see any way that peace can be kept.
    We should never have gone in the first place, and I don't think it will achieve anything in the long run. I think Blair was looking for political gains from going to war, attempting to emulate Maggie and the Falklands.


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