Sunday, 7 April 2013

New Zealand troops leave Afghanistan but political trouble looms

New Zealand’s contribution to the International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) will officially end at the end of April 2013. The New Zealand-led Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) has been based in the Bamiyan province for the past 10 years. The province itself will soon be under the direct administration of its 500,000 residents who will be largely responsible for its security.

As the United States-led war on al-Qaeda and the Taliban is set to wind down by the end of 2014, the security situation in Afghanistan remains mostly uncontrolled. Bamiyan province, where the New Zealand troops were based, is seen as the most stable region in the country. However, many other regions are much more restive and threaten to remain that way for the foreseeable future, complicating the planned U.S. and ISAF exit.

Recent militant attacks are still a worrying sign that combat between ISAF and NATO troops and Taliban elements will only increase as the deadline for withdrawal creeps closer.  Already this month, a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device detonated in southern Afghanistan, killing three NATO soldiers, two coalition civilians, and an unspecified number of Afghan civilians.
New Zealand soldiers with the NATO-led International
Security Assistance Force (ISAF) - Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images

Elsewhere, nine Taliban suicide bombers killed 44 people in an attack on a courtroom in western Afghanistan. Ten of their comrades were on trial in the courtroom, a local official said. The militants attacked the governor's compound in the capital of Farah province, where the trial was taking place.

Outside of the all-too-common militancy and the New Zealand troop exit, Afghanistan will hold elections early next year as President Hamid Karzai is scheduled to step down from leadership. Mr Karzai is the only leader Afghanistan has known since the United States toppled the Taliban regime in 2001, but he is barred constitutionally from governing for a third term. His departure will leave have a distinct echo on NATO plans for the country’s future, especially in negotiations with the Taliban.

As for who will replace him, none of the candidates or potential candidates will make the United States’ task of securing a safe exit and assuring security for the Afghan people very easy at all. Already Mr Karzai suggested the Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar could be eligible to run for presidency. Mr Karzai explains that the right for the Afghan people to choose their own leader independently outweighs Mr Omar’s diabolical past.

Suggesting Mr Omar could end up as president of Afghanistan indicates both the international forces and the Taliban know some sort of power-sharing agreement will need to be reached as winning decisively is not possible for either. The Taliban simply cannot return to a one-party state, no matter how hard they try, but their tenacity in waging a bloody campaign over the last decade suggests they won’t be happy to let democracy take its course to risk gaining only a handful of powerless seats in Kabul.

Washington on the other hand, and entirely understandably, wishes to constrain the potential for the Taliban to control the broken nation once again. They have not spent years of effort, blood, and treasure to see the state fall back into the hands of a vicious regime and potentially revert back into a haven for transnational terrorists. Nor do they want Pakistan, a key ally for both Washington and the Taliban, acquiring implicit control over the landlocked Afghan state.

But the United States do not occupy the negotiating high-ground any more. Negotiations between the Taliban, Pakistan, and the United States have stalled somewhat over the past few months and the Taliban are rumoured to be entering side talks with the Northern Alliance group. Seeing as the United States is not going to give the Taliban exactly what it wants, the militant groups is looking ahead by testing the possibility of a power sharing agreement with one of other traditionally large and powerful Afghan groups.

Speaking with village elders in a town near
Forward Operating Base Lane - U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Adam Mancini/Released
The problem Afghanistan faces is its history. To call the state a country, in the sense those in the West understand it, is stretching the limits of description. Before the U.S. entered forcefully, Afghanistan was a patchwork of abutting tribal influences. Setting up Mr Karzai in Kabul assured government control over the capital city, but Kabul’s influence ended at the city limits.

Very little has really changed in the years since. The fighting against foreign forces coheres the various tribes together under a common cause, but removing this cassus belli in 2014 will likely send them back to their various tribal affiliations, rather than rallying them around the Afghan flag. Taliban chief Mullah Omar wants more power than NATO wishes to allot him, but without Mr Karzai to continue negotiations for Washington, the American position weakens substantially.

Much of what the U.S. wants to create in Afghanistan requires a sympathetic Kabul. Washington is not leaving Afghanistan entirely; there are large, very permanent bases in the west of the country. But the small groups of soldiers stationed in those bases will not be enough to provide on-going security for the country. This is a future responsibility the Afghan National Security Forces will have to shoulder mostly alone.

Yet even now, the loyalty and reliability of these troops is in question. Without their U.S. overseers and in a post-Karzai government, coupled with a sordid history of fracturing and tribal warring, it becomes very difficult to expect Afghanistan to be stable after the 2014 U.S. and ISAF exit date. The clock is ticking loudly on the time remaining to accomplish U.S. goals, especially the training of Afghan police and security forces.        

The Taliban have always known they could fight longer than the international troops. New Zealand alone spent up to $300 million on the campaign, while the U.S. has spent close to US$650 billion. Mullah Omar and his fighters have realised the upper hand in the only ways that really matter for Afghans: politics and tribal affiliations. And they will leverage these as much as they can.


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