Addressing the Congress during the annual State of the Union speech in the night of February 12, 2013, United States (US) President Barack Obama declared, "America will complete its mission in Afghanistan and achieve our objective of defeating the core of al Qaida".
Outlining his latest Afghan policy he stated, Already we have brought home 33,000 of our brave servicemen and women. Over the next year, another 34,000 American troops will come home from Afghanistan. This drawdown will continue. And by the end of next year, our war in Afghanistan will be over. This spring, our forces will move into a support role, while Afghan security forces take the lead. Beyond 2014, America's commitment to a unified and sovereign Afghanistan will endure, but the nature of our commitment will change. We're negotiating an agreement with the Afghan Government that focuses on two missions: training and equipping Afghan forces so that the country does not again slip into chaos and counterterrorism efforts that allow us to pursue the remnants of al Qaida and their affiliates. Today, the organization that attacked us on 9/11 is a shadow of its former self.
The number of US troops on Afghan soil, which had peaked at about 101,000 in 2011, is presently estimated at around 66,000. With another 34,000 troops leaving in a year, just 32,000 troops will remain in Afghanistan. A studied ambiguity has been maintained over the residual number of troops that may remain after 2014. However, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, US Army General Martin E. Dempsey, stated on February 9, 2013, "we're not going from number to mission, we're going from mission to number", and that the mission in Afghanistan would determine the number of American troops to be deployed there after 2014. Dempsey added, "I will not at any point ask 10,000 troops to do 20,000 troops' work." The post-2014 missions is thought to necessarily include some continued counter-terrorism effort against transnational global threats; the training of, and advice and assistance to Afghan troops; and provision of support to other US Government agencies working in Afghanistan.
The 'drawdown' of NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) troops follows a comparable pattern. The present strength of ISAF is 102,052 (including 66,000 US troops) as against a high of 140,000 in 2011. There is no clarity on ISAF troop strength in Afghanistan after 2014. The phased withdrawal of ISAF troops is being done in accordance with the Inteqal (Transition) Framework defined at the London (UK) and Kabul conferences on Afghanistan in 2010. Under the Inteqal Framework, the international community's civilian and military representatives decided to shift their responsibilities to the Afghans, and to increasingly limit themselves to a supporting, mentoring, and eventually sustaining role in security, governance and development.
"Green-on-blue" attacks (Afghan Forces attacking ISAF personnel) have escalated considerably over the past two years, and can be expected to have an adverse impact on the projected US and ISAF mission. At least 60 ISAF personnel were reported killed in such attacks just through 2012, as against just 10 ISAF fatalities in six "Green on Blue" incidents in 2009; 20 fatalities in six incidents in 2010; and 25 fatalities in 21 incidents in 2011.
Meanwhile, violence continues, albeit with some diminution. According to partial data compiled by the Institute for Conflict Management, at least 5,162 terrorism-related fatalities were recorded in Afghanistan in 2012, as compared to 8,942 in 2011. The first 47 days of the current year have already recorded 352 fatalities.
Though fatalities have declined continuously since 2010, terrorist formations, including the Mullah Mohammad Omar-led Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani Network and the Hizb-i-Islami - Gulbuddin (HIG), continue to control large swaths of territory. NATO troops have, nevertheless, succeeded in limiting the extremist proliferation in the South. The militants, however, have not been defeated, and have consolidated their presence in much of North and Central Afghanistan. Moreover, the terrorists have retained the wherewithal to strike at will, a capability they demonstrated repeatedly in major attacks through 2012, most prominently including:
October 26: A suicide bomber detonated explosives outside a mosque killing 41 people and injuring 56 others in Maymana, capital of the Faryab Province.
October 1: Three US soldiers, the head of the Provincial Rapid- reaction Police Force, Mubarak Shah, and 12 civilians were killed, and 61 others were wounded, when a suicide bomber blew his explosive-packed motorcycle in Khost city, the capital of Khost Province.
September 18: Eight South Africans, a Kyrgyz citizen, all working for a local aviation company, along with three Afghan civilians, were killed, and 11 others were injured, when a suicide car bomb targeted a minibus carrying the aviation staff near Kabul airport.
September 14: 14 militants and two US Marines were killed and eight coalition jets were destroyed or damaged when the Taliban launched a massive attack against Camp Bastion, a main Coalition base in the north-west of Lashkar Gah, capital city Helmand Province.
September 4: At least 25 people were killed and 65 were injured in a suicide bombing in Dur Baba District of Nangarhar Province.
August 14: About 36 people were killed and 110 were injured in a coordinated shooting and suicide bombing in Zaranj, capital of the Nimroz Province.
August 13: Ishkamesh District Mayor Abdul Aziz, and Takhar High Peace Council (HPC) member Haji Hashim and three others were killed in a roadside-bomb attack in Takhar Province. Local officials blamed the bombing on the Taliban.
June 21: At least 23 people, including 14 civilians, three hotel guards, five Taliban militants and one Afghan Policeman, were killed in a gunfight, between militants and Security Forces (SFs), which occurred following the seizure by terrorists of the Spozhmai Hotel, outside Kabul, in the night of June 21.
June 1: Taliban militants detonated an explosives-laden truck near the gate of Camp Salerno in Khost. At least two US troopers and five civilians were killed in the explosion while 125 others, including 100 US service members were injured. 14 militants were also killed in the gun battle that followed.
May 2: Eight civilians and four suicide bombers were killed and 17 persons were injured when Taliban carried out an attack against a civilian-military Coalition camp in eastern Kabul.
February 27: Nine people were killed and another 12 were injured in a suicide car bombing at an airport in Jalalabad, the capital of Nangarhar Province.
January 18: At least 14 people, including a NATO soldier, were killed and another 22 were injured in a suicide attack in Helmand.
Worryingly, reports indicate that the terrorist formations are uniting, dangerously, across AfPak borders. Hakimullah Mehsud, the chief of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), thus declared, "We are Afghan Taliban and Afghan Taliban are us. We are with them and al Qaeda. We are even willing to get our heads cut off for al Qaeda."
Unsurprisingly, there are concerns that the 'spring fighting season' of 2013 may be bloodier than last year. Indeed, Afghan Taliban warned, "The Afghans should be granted control, choice of government and sovereignty of their country. If not, then our sacred jihad will intensify and forge ahead successfully even if one foreign soldier is present in our country..."
2013 is the first 'fighting season' in which the 352,000-strong Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) will be in the forefront of the counter-terrorism effort, leading 90 percent of all operations and already "protecting more than 75 percent of the (Afghan) population". Though the Government claims that the ANSF, which demonstrated exemplary fighting effectiveness in June 2012, is "completely ready" to take on the militants, it remains to be seen how Afghan Forces perform without direct ISAF backing.
ANSF has already started accounting for the bulk of casualties. General Dempsey thus noted: "Every Sunday, John Allen [General John R. Allen, former ISAF Commander] has a memorial service outside his headquarters to remember the soldiers who were lost in the past week. This past Sunday [February 3, 2013] was the first service he held since he was commander where there wasn't a single ISAF... soldier killed in action. First week in 19 months. However, there were 25 Afghan soldiers killed."
Meanwhile, the much-talked-about peace talks have floundered. While "there are no active negotiations now" with the Taliban, General Dempsey has conceded, "there will be irreconcilable parts of the Taliban that are just so ideologically skewed that the idea of any concessions is just anathema to them". Significantly, a number of Afghan Taliban officials and militants freed by Pakistan, purportedly to help bring peace to Afghanistan, have rejoined their colleagues in waging war against Kabul and the Western Forces. A February 9, 2013, Washington Post report thus quoted US, Afghan and Pakistani officials to observe, "Pakistan´s release late last year of several imprisoned Taliban officials and fighters, which it advertised as a good-faith effort to help bring peace to Afghanistan, is now prompting questions about whether the gesture has yielded anything but potential new dangers for NATO and Afghan troops." A Pakistani security official confirmed that 18 men were freed and described them as junior to midlevel Afghan Taliban militants, including 'field commanders' and foot soldiers.
America's 'drawdown' is taking place at a time when a troubled Afghanistan has been tainted by large-scale corruption (the country ranked 174th out of 176 in the 2012 Corruption Perceptions Index), and capacities for governance remain deeply suspect. Though apprehensions of an abrupt collapse, comparable to events in the aftermath of the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, have receded, the uncertainties of the situation are monumental. Worse, the future of Afghanistan remains as intimately tied to global peace and stability as has been its recent past. If the Western powers leave chaos behind in this unfortunate country, it is likely to follow them home in their baggage trains.
(The writer Ajit Kumar Singh is Research Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management)
(The view expressed in the article is of the author and not India Blooms News Service)