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.

Start Quote

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”

End Quote

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.


More on This Story


This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
  • rate this

    Comment number 41.


    I know all that, I'm a military historian.

    >>> So would this be a correct summary of your position: German soldiers should be have been prosecuted for murdering US combatants but British soldiers should be allowed to murder Afghan combatants with impunity.

    Would it be ok for Al Qaeda to behave like Americans and murder Obama when he was unarmed in his night clothes?

  • rate this

    Comment number 40.

    Whats it matter if NATO troopers kill the Taliban after they surrender. It creates must trust worthy the best type of muslim. These muslims want to destroy our way of life so I have no pity and see them as less than human. Those muslims who are happy to intergrate with us are welcome but lets not let a reglion like islam dominate this country.

  • rate this

    Comment number 39.

    38. minsa

    I know all that, I'm a military historian.

    Do you think the Taliban is a signatory to the Geneva Convention ?

    Was Osama Bin Laden carrying a weapon when he was shot dead in his night clothes. Clearly a large dose of hypocrisy from our political leaders

    What do you think the Taliban would do to a capture Western soldier ?
    This is not a nice conventional war or enemy.

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.

    ... who is to say they cannot dispatch insurgents who may be distracting them from other potential dangers ?

    >>> There were clear military reasons for the massacre of Americans by the SS at Malmedy - speed was essential. Nobody thinks that the trial of those responsible then was wrong. It cannot be one law for the Nazis and another for our soldiers if they 'dispatch' insurgents.

  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    When you're wounded and left on Afghanistan's plains,
    And the women come out to cut up what remains,
    Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
    An' go to your Gawd like a soldier

    Rudyard Kipling

  • rate this

    Comment number 36.

    The consensus seems to be that the Taliban will reassert themselves when the West leaves

    Why, because they are utterly ruthless, single minded & care not for individual loss

    How can soldiers fight a very unpredictable & dirty war against such an enemy when their helmet cams can be scrutinized by every liberal lawyer chasing an ambulance.

    Join the British Army, kill the enemy & be locked up.

  • rate this

    Comment number 35.

    Who is worried about peace - this is about oil.

  • rate this

    Comment number 34.

    #26,#13 We must not forget that this is a war caused and fought by individuals and not governments.How can a country stop something like 9/11 happening again-A dozen Saudis trained in Afghanistan flying planes into the US tallest buildings? How do we fight the militants when democratic leaders in the region are getting killed on so regular a basis by fanatics with bombs strapped to their bodies?

  • rate this

    Comment number 33.

    The moment international combat forces leave, the Taliban will regain control and restore Afghanistan to the state it was in before they entered. World leaders like to believe that 21st century thinking can replace 10th century beliefs in a trice, but know that they're wasting lives. Nothing will change such antediluvian cultures in a thousand years.

  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    Define irony: the UK gvt ignoring to wishes of the British people in order to install democracy in Afghanistan. We should never have gone in. The Taliban have already won this war. So our gvt is now getting our soldiers killed for no reason. Bravo Hollande for ignoring Cameron, listening to the French people and getting French troops out rather than pandering to US timescales and objectives.

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    The troops should be pulled out right now. If they are going to face a murder charge for killing the enemy, then it is pointless having them there, this is not war, it is madness. This sums up the politicians' attitude to the situation, abject surrender to the darker forces of Islam. Get our troops out and let the Afghans kill each other off, the world can do very well without them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    I would be surprised if British soldiers don't begin to question their officers on their increasingly difficult role in any "smooth" transition

    They don't know who is friend or foe, they don't know where the next bomb or bullet is coming from

    When in the field wiith the risk of the above, who is to say they cannot dispatch insurgents who may be distracting them from other potential dangers ?

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    This has been another expensive exercise in keeping the British Armed Forces trained in up to date weapons and methods. Just like Iran, Northern Ireland etc have been used over the years - for what - absolutley nothing. We will walk away and nothing will have been changed in a meanigful way. Afganistan will not be a better place and the Taliban will have free reign once again.

  • Comment number 28.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    23.Bradford - I was rather surprised at your comment being redacted, to use the word of the moment. It seemed to me to be a perfectly valid point of view but, as you say, the BBC does show a certain over sensitivity in some areas and it does lead to a degree of bias.

    #22 should read right and not tight!?

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    I hope one day Tony Bliar and Gordon Brown are forced to account for their war monngering ways.
    Bliar in particular should be judged to determine whether he is guilty of war crimes.
    Bliar was always so concerned about his legacy. For me its he was prime minister who has lead us into more wars than anyone else.

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    21. Leaguefan

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

    Quote 1st paragraph.
    "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."

    I worked it out no problem - the word Afghanistan did it for me.

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    So does this mean we will no longer be wasting millions in Afganistan. The whole thing was ill concieved and poorly lead. It is time to get out and leave them to thier fate. I for one will not give a stuff if Afganis kill each other, it saves them killing our soldiers.

  • Comment number 23.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    19.Gerry - Great Uncle Harry was buried on Friday with his medals and DFC gained carpet bombing civilians in Germany. Should he have been tried for war crimes?
    Politics is everything. Harry is a much loved war hero who fought in a 'just' war. These lads problem is that we view the war in Afghanistan as unjust and that means we, tight or wrong, can hang them out to dry.


Page 5 of 7


More Asia stories



  • NS Savannah, 1962Nuclear dream

    The ship that totally failed to change the world

  • Espresso cup7 days quiz

    Which city serves the strongest cup of coffee?

  • Glasgow 2014 quaichs and medalsQuaich guide

    What do the Scottish gifts given to Games medallists symbolise?

  • Malaysian plane wreckage in UkraineFlight risk

    How odd is it for three planes to crash in eight days?

  • israel flagDos and don'ts

    Can you criticise Israel without being anti-Semitic?

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.