Afghanistan braced for US exit

Fahd Humayun - International Editor 18 January 2013

Faced with a looming deadline for an end to the US combat mission in Afghanistan, Afghan President Hamid Karzai met US President Barack Obama in Washington last Friday to hammer out modalities for the withdrawal of foreign forces from the country, and to negotiate contentious details such as the explicit US demand that residual American troops be granted immunity from Afghan law.

There are currently an estimated 66,000 troops left in Afghanistan. Days before President Karzai landed in Washington, US Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said the Obama administration would not rule out a complete withdrawal, signalling that military commanders might favour a repeat of the complete 2011 drawdown in Iraq when the United States failed to reach an agreement on immunity for US troops with the Iraqi government.

While the Afghan president had earlier insisted that lingering American forces would remain under the jurisdiction of Afghan courts, in an interview with CNN last week he revealed that immunity was now something he was not only willing to consider, but actually hoping to endorse: “I can go to the Afghan people,” he said, “I will argue for it, and tell you with relatively good confidence, I could sell it.” The concession of immunity to lingering US troops, likely to slide into a support role by 2014, could however prove difficult to obtain at home, especially if left to a loya jirga or national assembly of tribal elders to decide.

In a joint press-conference with his Afghan counterpart, however, President Obama made it clear that a responsible end to the war in Afghanistan was very much a part of his legacy, and that a US withdrawal would not compromise the key objective of defeating Al-Qaeda. He told those gathered to hear the announcement: “Let me say it as plainly as I can: starting this spring, our troops will have a different mission, and not one that would require the same kind of footprint.”

The timing of this change in strategy is likely to prove contentious, particularly among military advisers and analysts who argue that the fighting season in Afghanistan gains momentum as the winter snow begins to melt. Speaking exclusively to The Cambridge Student, Dr Simbal Khan, Afghanistan expert at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars, remained sceptical about any tangible results the meeting between Karzai and Obama might have: “It’s likely to have little impact on the reconciliation process, which although has seen some movement forward, is still fragile and likely to be a slow and protracted process. Its momentum will depend on a number of factors on the military field in Afghanistan.”

In a separate statement to TCS, Afghan political analyst Akmal Dawi also made his trepidation clear.”There are widespread concerns among Afghans about the unfolding shifts in US policy towards Afghanistan. Some fear Washington could abandon Afghanistan as it did in Iraq. The Obama administration has adopted an ambiguous and sometimes contradictory Afghan policy. The US must make its long-term intentions clear. It has to boldly state whether it wants a long-term military presence in Afghanistan or not.”

President Karzai, too, has a difficult role to play not just in relation to providing legal immunity for US troops, but also as Afghanistan moves towards general elections in April 2014. Having been in office for a decade now, the Afghan leader is caught between a desire for a speedy departure of American combat troops and a need to ensure Afghan security in the face of an insurgency that has shown remarkable alacrity in shifting from rag-tag to intensive, with increasingly coordinated green-on-blue attacks.

The Afghan president is also derided by factions from within the Taliban as being an American puppet, making negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban all the more tenuous. A three-day meeting between competing Afghan factions held in Paris behind closed doors towards the end of December ended with few signs of a breakthrough and, if anything, restrained optimism. Members of the Karzai government were not directly included in the talks, and renounced the meeting for having taken place outside the country. Afghan MP and 2014 presidential candidate Fawzia Koofi told TCS that the approach to reconciliation as a whole needed to be modified: “Ultimately, as citizens of this world, we all need to revise our Taliban approach strategy,” she held.

Now, enthusiasm around President Karzai’s recent visit to Washington remains equally guarded, as Kabul and Washington have yet to agree on a security framework that delineates a final decision on post-2014 troop levels as well as details surrounding the exact pacing of the impending drawdown.

Fahd Humayun – International Editor