Pakistan and the Afghanistan Endgame

Commentary | May 24, 2012

Trying to muddle way out of another unpopular war and loath to concede defeat, US and NATO have been racing against time to build an Afghan army able to fend for itself after 130,000 US and ISAF troops pull out in 2014. The final transition phase, involving the handing over of responsibility for provinces and districts to Afghan authorities, will start from “mid-2013,” Nato secretary-general Anders Fogh Rasmussen said. A number of areas and towns have already been handed over since the transition started a year ago. Incidents of Afghan soldiers turning on Nato troops cause apprehension of increased Taliban infiltration of the Afghan police and army.

Nato initially planned to expand Afghan Security Forces to over 350,000. Defining the 2014 exit strategy the Chicago summit set the size and scope after 2014 to be much smaller, roughly 230,000 troops. Without scaling down the future security needs, it simply reflected prevailing economic realities in an era of austerity budgets and defence cutbacks. The US and Nato require $4.1 billion a year to maintain the Afghan military, far less than the cost of maintaining foreign forces in Afghanistan and also, and more importantly, easier for the economically suffering and war-weary US and European publics to sustain.

In keeping with his campaign pledge, incoming French president Francois Hollande said France will withdraw its own forces by the end of 2012. Along with Britain, Germany and Italy, France is among the top five troop-contributing nations with about 3,600 soldiers, dwarfed by the 90,000-strong US force. The 9,500 British forces in Afghanistan since the US-led invasion in 2001 will be reduced by 500 soldiers this year. Two hundred members of Britain’s Special Forces will stay on after 2014 to help combat terrorism in Afghanistan.

As Afghanistan’s largest patron, the US is supposed to share about 25 percent of the cost after 2014 in support of the present Afghan regime for at least a decade (or more), but could well conceivably bear more than half the cost. The recent Obama-Karzai strategic partnership covers everything from security to economic development, to building a functional Afghan government. US special operations forces will have to stay to “mentor the Afghan National Security Force,” says Marine Corps Maj Gen John Toolan, who commanded Nato forces in Afghanistan’s volatile southwest. US gunships and air-to-ground assault planes will continue supporting ground forces. The fledgling Afghan air force which in 2015 will still be unable to do so. The US will also continue maintaining a fleet of intelligence-gathering and surveillance aircraft, Heritage Foundation’s Lisa Curtis claims that “it spells out an important US red line to the Taliban, who have long called for expelling all foreign forces from the country.”

All said and done, will the Afghan Army fight? With a track record over centuries of deserting on masse to whosoever controls Kabul and the treasury, it did not fight for the Soviets against the Mujhahideen, nor for the US and Nato against the Taliban.

President Zardari faced studied but polite cold-shouldering in Chicago. On the one hand are the economic and geo-political considerations of far-reaching consequences for the destiny of the nation, on the other an enraged populace burning with anger against the drone strikes and the US failure to render an apology over Salala. A predator nation that has lived off the Indus Valley for centuries, Afghanistan will continue to live off Pakistan for centuries more.

Commenting on Abid Latif Sindhu’s article “Necessary Roughness – endgame in Afghanistan,” Brig Usman Khalid concludes: (1) The endgame will effect the world balance of power because Pakistan has a crucial role to play. It borders China, is a gateway to Central Asia and is situated on the Western part of the Arabian Sea. This part controls a chokepoint – the Strait of Hormuz, which joins the Gulf of Oman and the Persian Gulf-and not too far to the south is the Gulf of Aden, which leads to the Red Sea via the still narrower Bab el-Mandeb Strait; (2) Pakistan has shown “necessary roughness,” which is a prerequisite for playing its role in the new narrative that would unfold after the exit of NATO from Afghanistan in 2014. Brig Usman Khalid further notes: “It is in Pakistan’s interest to facilitate the withdrawal of Nato forces by the end of 2014 and logistical support until then. The reopening of the supply line to Afghanistan is no longer an issue. Pakistan does not and cannot support the overall design of the US which is now being made in consultation with India. Pakistan-US relations will move along a rough and bumpy road. If Pakistan maintains its strategic cooperation with Saudi Arabia and its warm relations with China, the cost of travelling this bumpy road would be bearable and diplomatic isolation avoided.” The Nato supply line through Pakistan needs resolution but will have emotional ramifications among a populace no longer patient with putting issues on the backburner.

The presence of American “experts” after 2014 with US bases operational at Bagram, Kandahar and Kabul has made the endgame more complex. According to Sindhu, “Pakistan has just shown necessary roughness while dealing with the USA in retaliation for its bashing; it was never an act of defiance. It is precisely what is required in any relationship, may it be one between husband and wife or Hillary’s favourite mother-in-law analogy. So it should be taken in the right context. Pakistan is not a rentier state; the state policy could be lopsided but it does exist. It is both a victim and the player of the new great game with a status of the regional middle kingdom. Afghanistan endgame is being played by increasing the numbers of players in its final hour; this has made the phenomenon global in nature and multidimensional in its texture.”

Sindhu asks whether Pakistan can be ignored with its unique connectivity matrix when Pakistan is fighting an extended insurgency in all of the tribal areas? In essence, he says, “globalism has come face to face with tribalism, one using technology as the main driver and later using the simplicity as the sine qua non for its existence and survival. International conferences, moots and summits without reality checks would be a futile exercise perpetuating the Afghan ordeal. Pakistan, Afghanistan and the USA have to reach an operational consensus respecting each other’s sensitivities.” Sindhu left out an inconvenient truth which the West well knows, the best bet against future conflict is not going to be the well-funded ceremonials of the Afghan army but the motivated, battle-hardened disciplined soldiers of the Pakistan Army.

The Chicago Summit recognised the home truth about Pakistan’s being not only critical but central to an Afghan solution. To quote Rasmussen, “there can be no large drawdown of troops from Afghanistan without Pakistan’s help.” President Obama said: “It is in our interest to see a successful, stable Pakistan and it is in Pakistan’s interest to have stable relationship with us.” Meeting Zardari briefly, he expressed the desire to stay engaged despite differences. “The US did not want Pakistan to be consumed by its own extremism.”

Beyond Chicago, Pakistan can only hope it will not be consumed by extreme views from the West which fail to recognise the relevance of the Taliban ground reality.