For an exit strategy

Published : Jun 01, 2012 00:00 IST

President Barack Obama is greeted by Gen. John Allen, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, at the Bagram airbase on May 2.-MANDEL NGAN/AFP

President Barack Obama is greeted by Gen. John Allen, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, at the Bagram airbase on May 2.-MANDEL NGAN/AFP

Barack Obama's secret visit to Afghanistan is seen as underlining the U.S' seriousness about pulling out its troops from there by 2014.

THE unannounced midnight visit of President Barack Obama to Kabul on May 2 served two major purposes: highlight the United States' commitment to the deadline for the withdrawal of its troops in 2014 and emphasise the American President's decisive role in the elimination of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. Obama's visit coincided with the first death anniversary of the Al Qaeda leader.

Speaking to an American prime-time television audience from the Bagram airbase outside Kabul, Obama said his surprise visit was intended to usher in a new era in the relationship between the U.S. and Afghanistan. He claimed that it would be a future in which war ends, and a new chapter begins. Obama also sought to assure the war weary American public that peace was dawning on Afghanistan after a decade of strife and violence.

The President, who has made the killing of Osama a campaign issue in the presidential election scheduled for later this year, reminded his television audience that the operation to eliminate the Al Qaeda leader was launched from a military base in Afghanistan. The goal I set, to defeat Al Qaeda and deny it a chance to rebuild, is now within our reach, the U.S. President said. He claimed that it was during his tenure that the Al Qaeda leadership was devastated and pointed out that 20 of the 30 top Al Qaeda leaders were eliminated in the last three years. It is well known for some years now that Al Qaeda has a very limited presence in Afghanistan, with its membership numbering less than hundred, and that its remnants are scattered in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and other parts of the world.

As the Osama tapes released by the U.S. in early May reveal, Al Qaeda after 9/11 was a rudderless organisation desperately but unsuccessfully seeking to influence events in Afghanistan and the world.

The U.S. President also revealed for the first time that his government had started direct talks with the Taliban to bring about a negotiated peace. The Taliban has demanded that Obama spell out plans for the complete withdrawal of American forces from the country. He stressed the need for a clear time line to wind down the war and for a global consensus on Afghanistan even while describing Pakistan as an equal partner with legitimate interests in Afghanistan. His emphasis on a global consensus gave India, Russia, China and Iran a political stake in the future of Afghanistan.

Earlier this year the Taliban withdrew from preliminary talks with the U.S. government following what they said was the desecration of the Quran and atrocities against Afghan civilians by U.S. troops. The Taliban also rejected U.S. conditions for full-fledged talks, including the recognition of the Hamid Karzai government and acceptance of a ceasefire before the departure of U.S. troops. The only demand the Taliban were willing to concede was that of snapping their tenuous links with Al Qaeda.

Obama also claimed that the Afghan security forces were now ready to shoulder the responsibility of maintaining security. American and NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) forces will be relinquishing combat duty next year prior to their withdrawal from the country. At the same time, the President talked of an enduring partnership with Afghanistan. Obama and Afghanistan President Karzai signed an agreement detailing the new partnership between the two countries after 2014.

The U.S. pledged to help Afghanistan economically for a decade, though no details of the American financial commitment were forthcoming. No concrete measures were announced to combat the drug menace in the war-torn Afghanistan, the largest producer of opium in the world. The Taliban, Afghan warlords and government officials have all gained in different ways from the receipts of the drug trade. Even neighbouring Tajikistan's economy is now dependent on the transit of illegal drugs through its territory.

Security relationship

The contours of the future security relationship between the two countries have deliberately been left vague. It has been widely speculated that the U.S. will retain many of its military bases in Afghanistan after the bulk of its troops are withdrawn in 2014. The U.S. has publicly demanded that its Special Forces remain in the country after 2014. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently stated that Washington was not seeking permanent military bases or a presence that is considered a threat to the neighbours. At the same time, she anticipated that a small number of the forces would remain at the invitation of the Afghan government.

The latest agreement, however, contains assurances that the U.S. will not build new military bases or use the existing facilities to launch attacks on Iran from inside Afghanistan. The U.S. has also promised to designate Afghanistan as a major non-NATO ally. This will commit the U.S. to defend Afghanistan if it faces aggression from a third country. Iran, Russia, China and Pakistan have objected to the retention of American bases after 2014. Iran, which is being continuously threatened with war, is already ringed by the largest number of American military bases.

These and related issues are expected to be ironed out when the U.S. and Afghanistan sign a Bilateral Security Agreement within a year. President Karzai chose to describe the new Enduring Strategic Partnership agreement with the U.S. as one marked by mutual respect. But it allows U.S. Special Forces to continue with the hated night raids on private Afghan homes under nominal Afghan supervision. For the past several months Karzai has been crying himself hoarse demanding an immediate end to the raids. A Pentagon spokesman said the Afghan authorities would not have a say in the conduct of the night raids. The Pentagon also claimed that the raids had resulted in the elimination of several Taliban leaders and their supporters.

The Afghanistan government and human rights groups have said most of the victims were innocent civilians, among them women and children. On the issue of drone attacks being launched from Afghanistan, the U.S. has not given any indication that they will stop anytime soon. The Pakistani government has demanded the cessation of drone attacks inside its territory. The attacks in the country's tribal areas have inflamed public opinion and hampered Islamabad's efforts to repair its strained ties with Washington.

The timing of the Obama visit was also dictated by the forthcoming NATO summit to be held in Chicago on May 20. The main agenda of the summit is the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan. Many of the NATO member-states and U.S. allies such as France and Australia have already started pulling out their troops without waiting for the 2014 deadline. As in the U.S., public opinion in these countries is overwhelmingly against the war in Afghanistan. Washington wants to use the NATO summit to ensure the cooperation of its recalcitrant allies and continued financial commitment to the Karzai government after 2014. After all, with a global economic downturn putting the Western economies in a tailspin, there will be little incentive for sinking more money into the Afghan quagmire. During his brief Kabul visit, Obama warned that if foreign forces left Afghanistan in a hurry, NATO would have to surrender many of its military gains.

As soon as Obama left for home after his hurried visit, Kabul was once again rocked by insurgent attacks. The Taliban said the attacks targeting security installations were a message to Obama and his claim that the tide has turned against the Taliban insurgency. In recent months, the Taliban and their allies have shown that they have the capacity to strike sensitive targets in Kabul and other major cities at will. As many as 138 American-led NATO troops have been killed since the beginning of the year. Most experts predict that the U.S. will not be able to secure the south and the east of Afghanistan before the scheduled departure date of 2014. Recent Taliban attacks have extended to Tajik- and Uzbek-dominated areas that were relatively peaceful until now.

The 330,000-strong Afghan National Army (ANA) has shown itself to be incapable of fighting on its own despite the training and arms it has received from the West and its allies at high cost. NATO provides $11 billion a year to support the Afghan Army. A recent report said that most of the ANA soldiers were functionally illiterate. Besides, they had a propensity to defect to the opposition with their uniforms and arms. It estimated that 20 per cent of all NATO troop casualties this year was at the hands of rogue ANA soldiers. After the Quran-burning incident, undisciplined U.S. soldiers further fuelled Afghan anger by going on periodic rampages against civilians and posing with the bodies of dead and dismembered insurgent fighters. The latest gruesome photos of U.S. servicemen posing with Afghan human trophies were published in Los Angeles Times in mid-April. The newspaper chose to publish the pictures despite heavy pressure from the Pentagon.

Despite Obama's optimism about the future of Afghanistan, most observers of the region opine that the country is a less secure place than it was in 2001 when the Americans first arrived there. The U.S. has spent more than $450 billion so far on its military adventure in Afghanistan. The Afghan economy is almost completely dependent on military spending, and 70 per cent of Afghans survive on less than $2 a day. According to aid agencies, more than 30,000 children die of malnutrition-related problems every year in the country.

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