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 61.

    I (and apparently many others) would like the answer to a very simple question... why are our valuable brave soldiers fighting CIA trained bogymen in a God forsaken country like Afghanistan who’s only real export is opium?

  • rate this

    Comment number 60.

    This wishfull thinking that the Kabul government will survive. What will happen is the same thing as happened when the US left Vietnam. This is not a handover of security excpet for public realtions propaganda for the folks back home a brave face on a factual Retreat which is the reality of the matter. Afghanistan will submerge into a muddle of internicene warfare and be forgotten with relief.

  • rate this

    Comment number 59.

    Ahmed Rashid as always gives an excellent analysis but there are to many 'ifs'. Sadly the US is unlikely to to make Afghanistan its top foreign priority, the prospects for UN's close engagement with Iran are slim, the ISI and Pakistani government are unlikely to take a helpful long term view and Karzai is unlikely to step down graciously without trying place a relative in the presidency.

  • rate this

    Comment number 58.

    The only logical transition would be for the american and uk forces to leave, being replaced by a UN force made up of troops from muslim backgrounds to act as peacekeepers.
    There will be decades of bomb clearing and rebuilding required, culturally appropriate peacekeepers could be of considerable aid.

  • rate this

    Comment number 57.

    Why did we ever go there in the firsrt place?

    There is no better way to transfer wealth from public to private hands, than through warfare. And the politicians can all look forward to directorship and adviser roles in these same private companies who financed, armed and supplied the war machinery. No doubt Iran will make them billions next.

  • rate this

    Comment number 56.

    Transition is a newspeak word for surrender. This was always on the cards. If you fight a war, you must destroy the enemy, not treat him as a brother in arms. It is an absolute disgrace that the cream of our armed forces are being killed in the name of political correctness.Fine young soldiers are dying because of a misguided belief that islamic insurgents deserve to be treated as human.

  • rate this

    Comment number 55.

    The things making it worse at the moment are (1) Do I dare turn my back on my Afghan army "colleague" in case he shoots me in the back, and (2) I have to hesitate before returning fire after coming under fire to ensure that his gun is still raised and pointing towards me for if not, or he is running away after having just blown up my mate, I may be charged with murder by a rear echelon lawyer.

  • rate this

    Comment number 54.

    US/NATO must realize that that key for Afghan Peace is with Pakistan. & Pakistan, will never want Peace in Afghanistan. The reason being that they want effective control of Afghanistan without any influence from India. As the article above states, Many Afghan`s dislike Pakistan and they were the ones who refused to recognize Pakistan (independence) and Pakistan is also aware of the the same.

  • rate this

    Comment number 53.

    It is clear that Afghans are a very uncivilised bunch who use violence to rule. The Taliban use the gun to spread fear and to keep the population in the place that they want them and the people are too afraid to fight back. They do not have the resources and are terrified of retribution such as that meted out to the Pakistani schoolgirl.
    I fear the situation is likely to continue for many years.

  • rate this

    Comment number 52.

    Exactly how do you fight against religious-based terrorist groups that resort to shooting a schoolgirl who dared to speak out?

    The worrying point may come when the human rights of a few are dispensed with for the greater safety of humanity.

    Has this point already been passed with drone attacks killing innocents?

    The start of a slippery slope but like most I also want to be rid of terrorists.

  • rate this

    Comment number 51.

    45. bor

    The Taliban would say they're trying to defend their values and prevent an alien religion (or none) and way of life being forced on them. I don't agree with them their values or their methods but you can't have it both ways. Your comment about cave dwellers just exposes your ignorance. Ever been to Afghanistan?

  • rate this

    Comment number 50.

    Smooth transition equates to UN leaving and Taliban taking over again.

    Is there really a viable solution here?.

  • rate this

    Comment number 49.

    Totally agree, religion should be kept a mile away from politics. If you believe in the invisible man, that's fine, but otherwise it is the main cause of suffering, oppression and war.
    Totally agree, Blair should face war crimes charges for this. I don't really know what the objective is, we can't exactly wipe out the Taliban.

  • rate this

    Comment number 48.

    Unfotunately, what can you do in a country run by people who frame people for blasphemy because they disagree with a particular religion, or shoot someone campaigning for the right of girls to attend school.

  • rate this

    Comment number 47.

    What a lovely word "transition" is, the US had "Vietnameasation" during the Vietnam war & used it to cut and run so the new buzz word transition is basically the same thing a smoke screen to cut and run with our tail between our legs, & once we have the Taliban will quickly take the country over so sadly all the troops we've lost there will be for nowt. Blairs war should have never happened.

  • rate this

    Comment number 46.

    Smooth transition can be a dream for Afghans,till they get the Taliban problem solved.All guns are taken away from them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 45.

    No, because he's not a militant blowing up planes in the name of an imaginary man in the sky, or killing thousands of innocent civilians. He's trying to defend our values from backward cave-dwellers forcing their archaic religion on the rest of us.

  • rate this

    Comment number 44.

    What they need is to be free from religion.

    "Isn't enough to see the garden is beautiful with out the need to believe there is fairys at the botton of it"
    carl sagan

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    I've read "Pakistan on the Brink" - it's been a few months. Ahmed Rashid laid out US' options with Pakistan & Afghanistan.
    I've not finished quite "Descent into Chaos: The US & the Disaster in Pakistan, Afghanistan, & Central Asia". New book is blistering on American policy - a warning call to fix these disasterous strategies before they threaten global stability & bring devastation.

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    I do not see any problem after the transition as long as it is adequately managed and no vacum is left to be manipulated by the regional interested countries. Afghan insurgents will not fight on for long as the cause for their struggle against the foreign forces will be over. However, if the corruption within the current government is not tackled, the consequences will be far worst than thought.


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