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 121.

    Members of the Taliban may talk to the NATO members, but it will be talk, and talk is cheap. There is no rime or reason for the Taliban to cooperate with NATO, the Americans, or any other so called outsider. Once all western influence leaves the tribes will go back to the century they want. There will be a great deal of resentment, and frustration for those who want to stay in the 21st century.

  • rate this

    Comment number 120.

    Why would the Taliban want to talk to the ones who are leaving? This is the main question that doesn't have a positive answer. At least not one that NATO wants to hear. The Taliban is made up from tribal groups which date back for hundreds of years. Either the West needs to change its mind about a total withdrawal or they need to realize that Afghanistan is going to go back to another century.

  • rate this

    Comment number 119.

    The terrorists will never call it quits from Afghanistan as Afghan checkered history has proved it. It would be wise for Nato to get out sooner the better from this hell-hole.

  • rate this

    Comment number 118.

    Now let me see...we spend all this money and lives to try an bring in something they want but wont fight for so: with in 6 months of leaving the taliban will run it all etc etc...and we will be back where we started and they will have what they deserve

  • rate this

    Comment number 117.

    Western involvement in Afghanistan has its origins in 9/11 and the 'War on Terror', obviously. But the people referred to by the BBC as 'terrorists' in Afghanistan and Pakistan, are referred to, with breathtaking *cretinousness*, as 'activists', in Syria, because they apply their fundamentalist ideology and bloodthirsty terror tactics against a regime that doesn't quite tick all Auntie's boxes.

  • rate this

    Comment number 116.

    112. Anglerfish

    Yes It's disgusting what they did, but the people they are doing this to are people that would blow themselves up in a heartbeat if they got the chance to kill westerners and their families, I believe they gave up their rights when they decided that war shouldn't be restricted to soldiers, but to kill innocent people too just to make a point, I really can't sympathise with them

  • rate this

    Comment number 115.

    The trouble is that the West is propping up a corrupt govt. They now want to restrict women rights and cover them up, so much for modern democracy they seem little better than the Taliban. We can't expect this feudal society to adopt a western culture and they certainly shouldn't get aid to support them there are more deserving cases, train them and let them get on with it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 114.

    It's a case of simpletons trying to educate simpletons. You end up with nothing but simpletons!

  • rate this

    Comment number 113.

    One suggestion to help pacify Afghanistan is to put on a test match, or possibly even a series, between England and Pakistan. Obviously the security would have to be *right*, and preferably it would include those great young Pakistan players who ran into a spot of bother last year. A precedent is from Chechnya, where a team of old-pro footballers including Diego Maradona played in 2011.

  • rate this

    Comment number 112.

    109. britstudent

    ' Accused of murder in a the most they should be court marshaled '

    Which is exactly what is happening. How about this ... soldiers capture an insurgent, disarm him, handcuff his hands behind his back, take him to their vehicle, where he's shot in the head. Not murder. Why not, even in war?

  • rate this

    Comment number 111.

    Nothing good will happen in that country, and nothing will be achieved by western armies staying there. When we leave (the sooner the better) it will revert to just how it was before. But for the families of hundreds of our servicemen who have died in vain it will never be the same. What a tragic, unnecessary and pointless war supported by politicians who can't learn the lessons of history.

  • rate this

    Comment number 110.

    Adults don't speak of a 'smooth Afghan transition' because only children do. It won't happen. For Afghans, this IS the solution; those who threaten the gravy-train will swiftly be murdered together with all misbehaving family members, of course. Where's the promise in that?
    Well then, YOU are a fool!

  • rate this

    Comment number 109.

    @ 16 Bradford

    I don't know why your comment is rated so low, I completely agree. I'm proud of British soldiers, even as the countries economic power declines they are still the best in the world and I'd expect them to be defended well by the MoD. Accused of murder in a the most they should be court marshaled and the military should deal with them, not regular courts.

  • rate this

    Comment number 108.

    How many ISAF generals & top brass been killed out on foot patrol?
    Zero - None
    Best way to get troops home is to get those stupid fat generals and army big-wigs out on patrol prodding for IED's - the British troops will be coming home tomorrow.
    Get 'Damn-ant' out there on patrol - let's see how he is finding IED's
    More generals than tanks - send them generals out on foot patrol

  • rate this

    Comment number 107.

    its very sad to see where this country is headed the moment the ASFR pulls out of Afghanistan because the radicals used religion as their guidences to controll their women and denied their girls a fair chance in life as their brothers by not allowing them to go school

  • rate this

    Comment number 106.

    Within 2-3 years of leaving, the Taliban will be back in power,the old insurgents will be back and starting up training camps again. The old insurgents will want revenge for what the west has done in killing their leaders and bombs will start going off in Europe much as they done 4-5 years ago. We either win this war completely or we and Europe will suffer the consequences.

  • rate this

    Comment number 105.

    The ONLY way to put a stop to this nonsense is to get rid of these rediculus religions and the nonsense they spread to the illiterate. Any one can bring any child from any country up to believe in ANYTHING. ALL religions are just a load of MAN made, nonsense Mumbo- Jumbo! That is WHY there is so many religions out there!

  • rate this

    Comment number 104.

    @103 rgar
    What has your comment got to do with the current topic or today's date for that matter? Who gives a 'toot'????????

  • rate this

    Comment number 103.

    Incidentally, calling the Taliban medieval is an insult to medieval Muslims, who although certainly very violent (as were medieval Christians) were not barbarians and were far more tolerant when it came to other religions than medieval Christians or present-day Saudi Arabia, let alone the Taliban, and were more scientifically advanced than medieval Christians, particularly in mathematics.

  • rate this

    Comment number 102.

    With it's porous border with Pakistan NATO was always on a hiding to nothing and I can't see things changing in Afghanistan when NATO leaves. No regime can succeed there without the approval of Pakistan and they are in thrall to the Taliban.


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