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 101.

    It's plain from their behaviour (present & pre-occupation) the Taliban will brook no dissent and will re-impose the world's most totalitarian regime as far as their military capacity allows them to. Cooperation with bin Laden-harbouring Pakistan is a joke; democratic India, secular China and Shia Iran are the only local actors that might be help oppose Sunni fundamentalists like the Taliban.

  • rate this

    Comment number 100.

    We have wasted enough money and human resources in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and in return we had our soldiers killed. After 2014, we should stop all aids to Afghanistan and, Pakistan in particular and use that money for the welfare of our people. They are not interested in their development, and there is no point in wasting our good money over bad.

  • rate this

    Comment number 99.


    No, I get the point. Before the war the main exports were fruits and nuts, handwoven carpets, wool, cotton, lambskins (Karakul), and gemstones. My point was that ignorant comments like 92. bor's 'desert wasteland' give the impression that Afghanistan is a hopeless country with nothing to offer. I don't suppose Germany's exports were stunning in 1945.

  • rate this

    Comment number 98.

    What is needed here is a lasting peace between the karzai regime and the Taliban which will leave Afghanistan totally outside the control of NATO! After all, we have no more right to control that country than the Russians did 30 years ago. I say, an Afghanistan for the Afghans!

  • rate this

    Comment number 97.

    I just read somewhere that in one weeks reading of the NYT is equivalent to all the information a person had in a 'life' time during the 18th century. I really don't care what happens to the Taliban - those crazies who time travelled from the 7th century. Bring the troops home and as far as smooth goes - lock the door on your way out.

  • rate this

    Comment number 96.

    94.Anglerfish - is endowed with a wealth of natural resources

    I think you are missing the stated point... but what is it their main export?

    ... opium! But that's ok... looks like the CIA are now running that side of the business now ;0)

  • rate this

    Comment number 95.

    Some of these countries are very quick to start a war or to take over another country , but VERY POOR HOW TO END IT !

  • rate this

    Comment number 94.

    92. bor

    "Afghanistan is a desert wasteland whose only export is opium."

    ' ... is endowed with a wealth of natural resources, including extensive deposits of natural gas, petroleum, coal, marble, gold, copper, chromite, talc, barites, sulfur, lead, zinc, iron ore, salt, precious and semi-precious stones, and many rare earth elements' .. Wikipedia

    Desert wasteland ... ever been to see?

  • rate this

    Comment number 93.

    One of the main mistakes of the west is thinking the Taliban are a totally separate group with different ideals from the afghan people,

    There is many shades of grey leading to the Taliban, and are most likely people they know from the next village and the Afgans have more in common with the Taliban than they do with the western secular democracy we try to install

  • rate this

    Comment number 92.

    No it isn't, Afghanistan is a desert wasteland whose only export is opium.

  • rate this

    Comment number 91.

    Anyone who thinks the US led incursion into Afghanistan has made a great difference is a fool. Apparently we are leaving by 2014 because our mission will have been completed. Utter nonsense. The Taliban are alive and kicking and will resurge.

  • rate this

    Comment number 90.

    89. Bradford

    Presumably you're referring to the five marines on a murder charge. You'll have to give us your inside knowledge first because all I can find is that the MOD says 'details will be released in due course'.

  • rate this

    Comment number 89.

    Can anyone explain the difference between an apache pilot finishing off an insurgent by machine gun at 1km from the safety of an armoured helicopter & troops on the ground at 10m & a risk of being shot at any moment ? One is hailed a hero the other a murderer ?

    No smooth transition if the ground troops begin to wonder who the enemy really is or that they are the fall guys for political muddle

  • rate this

    Comment number 88.

    I think Mr. Rashid's view gives far too little credit to the Afghan people and expects far too much from the international community.

    And Pakistan is the greater regional threat in any event.

  • rate this

    Comment number 87.

    How many more mothers must lose sons, how many wives must lose husbands, and how many more children must lose fathers, before politicians realise they ain't going to win this one?
    How many lives must be lost before politicians put their hands up and say "we were wrong"?
    Is winning the next election more important than the lives of those putting their necks on the line for our country?

  • rate this

    Comment number 86.

    No, the problems will come to an end when the world wakes up and stops believing these fairy tails about men in the sky etc., and particularly when Muslims stop crying over a stupid film. You don't see Christians rioting about gay marriage, something far worse than insulting a "prophet". Then, we can concentrate on what actually exists and tackle the world's problems together.

  • rate this

    Comment number 85.

    53.I think we should just stick to calling the Taliban "an uncivilised bunch".We shouldn't tar all the rest of them with the same brush.

  • rate this

    Comment number 84.


    You show your ignorance by calling it a failed state.

    It has only ever been a state to us in the West & the puppet local "govt" we effectively installed.

    To the locals it's only ever been a series of provinces next door to each other.

    You forgot to add another pointless death of another innocent civilian too.

  • rate this

    Comment number 83.

    53 Ppuj

    'It's clear that Afghans are a very uncivilised bunch ...'

    Ever been to Afghanistan? Do you know any Afghans? Or are you resorting to the 'everybody knows' body of evidence?

  • Comment number 82.

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


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