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 81.

    80.Satheesan Kochicheri

    Yeah, that's really clear now, honest???

    I would have thought that religion is the problem rather than the solution, just look at the worlds conflicts and wars

  • rate this

    Comment number 80.

    The problems will come to an end once we try to explain the message of the Prophet. The current form of Islam is different from the demands of the Prophet for social change. This religion was formed by the supporters of his fight against the people who opposed him. The Prophet was expressing the sensibility that he gained in opposition to the deteriorating social practice. for more search my me

  • rate this

    Comment number 79.

    I wonder how the American's feel the Iraq Army showing how grateful they are by buying Russian helicopters

    A sign of things to come in Afghanistan?

  • rate this

    Comment number 78.

    wideboy at 73 absolutely. Afghanistan is a feudal medieval state and there will be no smooth transition. The smooth transition is a myth procreated by politicians to justify the last 10 years. Pull out tomorrow to stop the pointless waste of life of another service person.

  • rate this

    Comment number 77.

    What do we learn from history? Obviously foreign governmental interventionists played erstwhile Russian roulette before throwing in the cannon fodder. Was the deadly gamble worth it? Never was, never is, never will be. Next time, try sending in McDonalds and CocaCola first: that's worked elsewhere to great effect.

  • rate this

    Comment number 76.

    Simple just tell the taliban to leave us alone and dont try and bomb us and we wont nuke them,

    The problem is that like most muslims any will justify attacks on western targets by any means like " dont insult islam" Any small "insult" any they all go on killing spree, just look at the " facebook" attack on buddists in bangladesh, so much for a religion of peace.

  • rate this

    Comment number 75.

    If they're not interested in liberal democracy, leave them alone and stop wasting our lives and money. Leave the fanatics to rot in the desert wasteland for all I care.

  • rate this

    Comment number 74.

    With a bad sector on a computer disk you isolate it & stop data going into & from it. We should do the same with this 10th century hell-hole. It has nothing we need & we have nothing the taliban need. Close it off & let the rest of us get on with our own lives. We could see how they're doing in say, 100 year's time. Close it off now.

  • rate this

    Comment number 73.

    All will happen is it will go back to how it was 10-15 years ago, as soon as those troops leave it will, they are strict tribal muslims which have no intrest in western style secular democracy, The taliban will come back

    We are wasting our money pumping in 4Bn in international AID each year, giving money to a corrupt government that hates us

  • rate this

    Comment number 72.

    Yeah, perhaps it was a bit unfair. How about comparing them to Bush, Blair and Brown instead?

  • rate this

    Comment number 71.

    what a waste of our young men and women and all those with ruined bodies and minds the Pakistani SIS will just continue its proxy war in afghan when were all gone and it will revert back to as it was in 2001 its all Pakistan's fault

  • rate this

    Comment number 70.

    If it all goes pear shaped then it won't just be because the coalition failed. It will be because the Afghans failed also.

    No matter the right or wrongs of it, it's a fact that a decade has passed. Did the Afghans seize what opportunities there were? Have all actors worked wholly toward a peaceful and prosperous Afghanistan?

    It's also a fact that the future waits for no-one.

  • rate this

    Comment number 69.

    41. minsa

    German soldiers dressed in US uniform were executed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 68.

    To bor@62.I think you're being unfair on the original cave-dwellers.I bet they treated their women a bit better - probably couldn't have treated them worse.All Taliban need wiping off the face of the earth.Just don't think it's our job to do it.Neither US nor Britain should be policing the world.We have enough problems of our own.

  • rate this

    Comment number 67.

    Smooth Transition?, not in a month of Sundays, as soon as international forces depart the tribal warfare will resume, a report last week stated that the best that could be hoped for is the main cities staying under Karsai's control and the rural area's certain to be Taliban controlled. Pull out now and stop wasting soldiers lives.

  • rate this

    Comment number 66.

    61 BRIAN
    Quite true, the only real export is opium, so it should be fairly easy for the boffins in US or UK labs to come up with a specific herbicide aimed at the opium crop (without the agent orange effects on humans) which would deny the Taliban their bankroll, or are we not doing it for fear we might infringe the drug barons' and Taliban human rights?

  • rate this

    Comment number 65.

    Ther never will be peace in that part of the world and you can blame that largely on illogical religious fanaticism. Those people have never done anything worth while for many hundreds of years. Meanwhile, our troops are dying needlessly, it's costing us a fortune to no purpose and arms manufacturers are rubbing their hands.
    Peter D

  • rate this

    Comment number 64.

    I can't understand why it was a good idea to give the Taliban notice that we were quitting in 2014.They know now that they just have to bide their time for two more years.That country will have the same problems after we've gone.Should never have gone in.We learn nothing from history.Outside interference before has never worked.

  • rate this

    Comment number 63.

    "Their not defending their values..."
    Should've read "They're not defending their values.."
    That's the problem with autocorrect.
    But my point is still the same, no-one is forcing western values on them, and certainly not crashing planes to that end.

  • rate this

    Comment number 62.

    Their not defending their values, they are forcing them on everyone else. You question my comment on them as cave-dwellers, well they may not be, but most in the Taliban must have a similar level of intelligence. And you ask me if I've ever been to Afghanistan, no, but have you?


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