Along with other Afghanistan watchers, AAN’s Thomas Ruttig has been asked to comment on President Obama’s announcement of a partial troop withdrawal by Foreign Policy Magazine and the FP-related AfPakChannel. Please read a synthesis of both articles here*.
The announcement of the troop drawdown by President Obama last night will not change the military balance on the ground in the short term, because the drawdown will start slowly. More problematic is the signal it sends to Afghans– and I mean those outside positions of power who are afraid of the consequences when the drawdown ends, when international attention and development assistance to Afghanistan will dwindle. This announcement, they fear, runs parallel to a possible power-sharing deal with the Taleban that may emerge during this period. For them, today was the beginning of the end of the world’s support for Afghanistan, for the third time after 1989 (the Soviet withdrawal) and the 1990s factional wars.
Despite all the claims of progress put out by the U.S. military, the Afghan surge has not hit the insurgency beyond repair and has not shifted the strategic balance away from the Taleban.
The Taleban’s network structure is pretty elastic. During the surge, a lot of Taleban commanders have been killed, but their places were filled quickly and, it appears, by younger and more radical newcomers. Ironically, the U.S.-led coalition is thus undermining its own strategy of damaging the Taleban until they agree to talks: Hard-liners are less inclined to talks and might want to seek revenge before doing so, as many of those killed are often their older brothers or cousins.
Others simply went to hide in Pakistan, but a number of them have returned to Afghanistan to participate in the Taleban’s asymmetric spring offensive. Since mid-April, the Taleban have killed four provincial and even region-level police commanders and one provincial governor. Two other governors escaped narrowly. For the first time, they injured a NATO general.
A third group of Taleban comprises those pushed from one district to another, where they continue their activities, in both the south (as in Kandahar and Helmand provinces) and the north (Kunduz) of the country. To take a recent example, after an operation in Tala wa Barfak, an area of Baghlan province, the local Taleban moved to the Ghorband Valley, which now has become volatile.
Equally important, if not more so, are the political results of the surge. Instead of forcing the Taleban to the negotiating table, the coalition closed the door. Up to 2008, an internal debate about the wisdom and morality of suicide bombing went on within the movement, and there was perhaps a political opening. Around the same time, the Taleban appointed a confidant of Mullah Omar, Agha Jan Mutassim, as the head of their political commission that would have been responsible for prospective contacts with the West and/or the Afghan government. After the surge started, he was replaced, and dissenting voices — i.e., those who wanted an end to the bloodshed — became silent again. Ranks closed around the party line: No talks before all foreign troops have left.
If the drawdown is coupled with further confidence building measures and the inclusion of important sectors of the Afghan society beyond the Kabul government in shaping an approach to “reconciliation” that is not seen as surrendering rights and freedoms, moral and political high-ground might be recaptured. This would be much more important than clearing a few dusty districts.
But will be more difficult now to reopen doors towards a dialogue with the Taleban, although some channels seem to be established. But make no mistake: Channels and contacts are not “talks” and no “negotiations” yet. The mistrust is mutual: The U.S. and many Afghans do not believe that the Taleban want peace, and the Taleban did not perceive the surge as a peace offer. And even if it works: A political deal between the US and/or Kabul and the Taleban would be only one element of a settlement of the Afghan conflicts.
The Taleban will thus likely not be impressed by U.S. President Barack Obama’s drawdown speech. If they are clever, they will not come out with their usual condemnation, but with a statement welcoming the announcement as a good first step — sending a signal that they might be ready for a political solution. But they do not trust that the United States really wants peace.
Those in the Taleban who genuinely do want an end to the fighting, and possibly will not insist on a complete U.S. withdrawal before negotiations, are still there and might not have changed their minds. I am not saying that serious talks would have happened naturally, but the surge destroyed an earlier chance for them.
The surge, along with its attendant concentration on the security sector, has also overshadowed the deep shortcomings of Afghanistan’s political institutions. The country suffers from an overly centralized and manipulative executive, a marginalized parliament, and a judiciary that is light-years away from being independent. Even the composition of the parliament is still unclear nine months after an election full of irregularities and based on Afghan institutions that were not up to the job. These elections were the first example of a handover of responsibility that failed, and they should have been a warning.
The education system is also not as good as often described. Yes, schools and universities have been renovated and rebuilt. There are millions of students, but no jobs after graduation. Students have to pay their teachers to pass exams or bribe their way through the university entrance exams. In the primary schools, many teachers work a second job because they cannot live off their meager salary. As for the medical system, good luck getting an appendectomy at night in, say, Khak-e Jabbar(**), a district half an hour outside the capital that has a clinic but no doctor or medication.
None of this is really about Afghan President Hamed Karzai; it is about the failings of an entire system. It was the United States that shaped it in the early post-Taleban days, with no prime minister, no ID cards (which could have been used as voter cards as well, preventing fraud), and no conscription. The United States also re-injected the warlords, their former Cold War allies, into the system, which they duly managed to discredit very effectively from within.
Fixing Afghanistan’s deep problems will require a new generation of Afghans to enter politics. Before 2014, there is still time to put this and other required solutions at least on the right track. But the clock is ticking.
(*) Both articles were originally published here and here.
(**) In the original piece, it says Khak-e Afghan – that’s in Zabul and my mistake.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020