21 November 2011
Ayesha Khan
(Former Chatham House Expert)


After a decade of fighting the war against terrorism, Afghanistan remains a dangerous place. The tenth anniversary of the US invasion in October this year was marred by a series of violent attacks that has put into jeopardy President Obama's transition strategy to hand over security to Afghan forces and end combat operations by 2014.

In the first phase of the transition, a withdrawal of 33,000 'surge troops' is planned by the end of 2012. These troops are part of the 'military surge' counter-insurgency strategy deployed last year to defeat the Taliban and protect the civilian populations. But despite this, Afghan civilians are dying in record numbers – mostly owing to Taliban attacks. These have increased in ferocity, and in more emboldened tactics the Taliban are now directly carrying out assaults against high-profile targets including the US Embassy in Kabul and US military personnel. The suicide attack on 29 October on international troops has been the deadliest in the Afghan capital since the start of the war.

Given the volatile security environment, plans for a transition are not without risk. While troop withdrawal plans are under way a viable transition strategy is lacking, and analysts fear this may lead to a political and security vacuum. Over the past ten years, the international community has failed to create the conditions for a viable Afghan state. With limited resources, a narrow political timescale and an overall neglect of state-building, it has not created lasting institutions that could stabilize the country.   

The US military and NATO forces, however, are spending billions of dollars on building the Afghan National Army (ANA) and police force. Critics argue that despite a massive effort to recruit, train, equip and deploy competent Afghan security forces, and according to a recent Pentagon report on 'Progress towards Security and Stability in Afghanistan' none of the 218 major Afghan National Police units are able to operate independently' of ISAF. Of 204 Afghan army units, only one is rated 'operationally effective' but it remains dependent on ISAF for combat support. Currently the Afghan National Army has approximately 170,000 troops. By 2014, it is expected to expand to 240,000, but it has low fighting capacity and is plagued by high rates of attrition, ethnic imbalances, corruption and inefficiency. Some analysts are arguing that without an effective Afghan security force, withdrawal may lead to a collapse in security.   

In spite of this, the US military presence and action in Afghanistan are unsustainable and counter-productive, and they lack Afghan and American public support. For a reputable exit that does not leave civil war in its wake, a negotiated settlement with warring parties is a prerequisite. The Taliban control large swathes of Afghanistan's southern and eastern territory and are the only faction at war with the international forces; and as US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton put it to the House Foreign Affairs Committee at a hearing on Afghanistan and Pakistan in October this year, 'you don't make peace with your friends'. But reconciliation with the Taliban is a difficult negotiation to undertake, not only because it undermines the original objectives of the war, but also because it remains elusive and dependent on Pakistan – a country viewed by both the United States and Afghanistan as a question able partner in the war against terrorism because of its duplicitous role in both harbouring and hunting the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.   

Without Pakistan, a 'peace deal' of sorts with the Taliban becomes difficult. For the Obama administration this is an uncomfortable reality. US–Pakistan relations were at an all-time low following the assassination of Osama Bin Laden in Abbottabad, a Pakistani garrison town that is home to many in the military establishment, including Pakistan's Military Academy. CIA director Leon Panetta accused Pakistan of being either 'incompetent' in finding Osama or 'complicit' in hiding him. In the aftermath, US–Pakistan diplomatic exchanges have been disingenuous and confused. While publicly chiding Pakistan for its contacts with insurgents, the US is enlisting its help to negotiate with the Taliban. While admonishing the Pakistan army and ISI (Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence) for their links with the militant Haqqani network (seen to be a key group in any peace talks), it also appears to be relying on the ISI to broker talks between this hardline faction and the US.   

This convoluted and quick-fix strategy of finding a resolution to the Afghan conflict in order to pave the way for a US withdrawal is unlikely to bring peace to Afghanistan. The Taliban remain unwelcome to many Afghans and Pakistanis alike. An elite-based negotiated settlement to the conflict will merely allow for a temporary transition which may be followed by a subsequent disintegration of the state and return to conflict. After four decades of war, Afghanistan is once again faced with the likelihood of negotiations that will not secure long-term peace and security, as time and again the international community has failed to acknowledge that the crisis in the country runs deeper than the mere composition of the Afghan government.