Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s visit to the United States last week – his first since assuming power in October 2014 – probably achieved what he had hoped. U.S. President Barack Obama, in a joint press conference with Pres. Ghani, declared that the United States would maintain its “current posture of 9,800 troops through the end of this year.” The initial plan was to reduce this force by half at the end of 2015. The United States also pledged to provide financial assistance to a 352,000-strong Afghan National Security Force (ANSF) until the end of 2017.
At a time when concerns and future uncertainties dominate the narrative about Afghanistan, the U.S. commitment to continue – and increase moderately – its assistance for Afghanistan is a positive development. Such U.S. commitments would have been unlikely had Hamid Karzai still been in power in Kabul. His last few years in office coincided with a serious deterioration in U.S.-Afghan relations. The constant criticisms and volley of accusations against the foreign forces in Afghanistan during his second term made it difficult for the United States to make any further commitments to Afghanistan, an engagement that had become unpopular domestically.
Both Pres. Ghani and his Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah realise the importance of sustained American support and have worked towards mending these ties. The signing of the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) within days of assuming office was a good start and provided a platform on which to build. Ghani’s acknowledgment of the sacrifices made by American soldiers in Afghanistan during his address to a joint session of the U.S. Congress was a refreshing change from Karzai’s theories of foreign troops in the region working against Afghan interests. Writing in a joint editorial for the Washington Post on the eve of their U.S. trip, the two also stated “Afghanistan must never again become a launching ground for terrorist attacks, we want to continue to work with the United States.”
The change in leadership in Kabul has provided a new opportunity for the two countries to work together. Media reports suggesting a larger role for the United States post-2014 than originally envisaged have been doing the rounds for the better part of the past six months. President Obama had, in fact, agreed to expand the scope of the 1,800-strong Special Forces to target the Taliban, in addition to al Qaeda, shortly after the signing of the BSA. Their enhanced responsibilities also include the provision of air support to the ANSF.
The Taliban, which has made significant inroads into southern and eastern Afghanistan over the past year, continues to pose a serious military threat. The additional threat of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in the region could further increase the security challenges before Kabul. The U.S. support for the ANSF, especially for the air support and other logistical assistance, is thus critical and can provide additional firepower to the Afghan forces in what is expected to be an extremely intense fighting season.
While the impact of U.S. support should not be understated, it is also important to manage expectations. With the ANSF in charge of all security operations, the bulk of the residual force will only play a supporting role. While most estimates suggest that the ANSF is capable of keeping the insurgents at bay, its casualties witnessed an increase in 2014. There are also doubts about the possible effectiveness of the residual force or the Special Forces given that a much larger foreign troop presence over the past 13 years was unable to have a lasting impact on the insurgency. This number is likely to be reduced further post-2016 with the United States likely to maintain only a few hundred to a 1,000 troops in the country. Although U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter has hinted at the possibility of the United States’ re-evaluating its military plans for the region depending on the security situation, the 2016 deadline for a complete withdrawal from the country remains intact for now. This declared timeline continues to be in the Taliban’s favour, which, having already survived thirteen years of western military pressure, needs to wait it out for a couple more years.
Military success against the Afghan insurgents is unlikely until there is a more genuine commitment from Pakistan to uproot the terror infrastructure on its soil. Afghanistan-Pakistan relations, just like U.S.-Afghan relations, have also noticed an improvement in the past six months, and Pres. Ghani has sought to enlist Rawalpindi’s support in his efforts against the Taliban. Besides public declarations of support, the progress so far has been slow. As Pakistan grapples with its own internal security problem, there is an opportunity for genuine Afghanistan-Pakistan cooperation. A greater diplomatic and political effort from Washington to push Rawalpindi – something that the U.S. has attempted in vain in the past as well – in this direction is necessary.
Finally, the possibility of these latest developments’ complicating the Afghan government’s efforts to reach an agreement with the Taliban cannot be ruled out as well. One of the consistent demands of the Taliban has been the complete withdrawal of foreign troops from the region. The Taliban has claimed that the main factors fueling the Afghan War have been the presence of “foreign invaders and anti-Islam activities” and has repeatedly warned that it would continue to wage war until Afghanistan is freed from all forms of “foreign occupation.” Although doubts about the Taliban’s sincerity to resolve the conflict through negotiations persist, it was hoped that the military drawdown from the region would provide an opportunity for the new government to engage with the insurgents. In fact, reports earlier this year also suggested that the Taliban might be open to holding talks with the government. Whether this turns out to be a setback in some way for the reconciliation process remains to be seen.
The Taliban has already issued a statement condemning President Obama’s announcement of “the prolongation of occupation.” The statement also accused the “powerless Kabul administration” of making “much noise about fabricated peace talks over the past few months.” The Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, also stated: “this damages all prospects for peace.” It is no secret that the Taliban refuses to acknowledge the Afghan government as an independent entity, claiming that actual power rests in Washington. This is an image that Pres. Ghani has inherited from Karzai and has been unable to shed thus far. Although the Taliban has used this viewpoint to justify its rejection of government overtures in the past, Mullah Omar and the Quetta Shura are still said to be amenable, these public statements notwithstanding, to the idea of talks.
However, there is no unanimity within the Taliban towards the peace process, and a number of commanders continue to oppose it. It is possible that these latest developments could be exploited by the more hard line factions to strengthen their stance and create a different set of problems for the reconciliation process.