NEW DELHI – The agreement at the NATO summit meeting in Lisbon on a transition plan to help end the war in Afghanistan within the next four years raises troubling questions about regional security and the global fight against transnational terrorism. As the US and other coalition partners gradually wind down their combat role, Afghan security forces – to number 300,000 after crash training of new recruits – are to take their place. But these local forces are unlikely to be able to hold the country together.
The most likely post-war scenario is a partition of Afghanistan, with the Taliban calling the shots in the Pashtun-dominated south and east, and the non-Pashtun northern and western regions retaining their current de facto autonomy.
Regionally, there is likely to be greater turmoil. The withdrawal of NATO forces before the job is done will leave India on the front lines to face the brunt of greater terror from the Afghanistan-Pakistan belt. In fact, NATO’s retreat is expected to embolden jihadists in the region – and beyond it – to stage transnational attacks.
The 2014 withdrawal plan, however, comes as no surprise, given US President Barack Obama’s expressed desire to end combat operations in Afghanistan. Indeed, his defense secretary, Robert Gates, made clear last year that the US will now seek to contain terrorism regionally rather than defeat it. The transition plan cements that strategic shift.
The problem, however, is that the US war effort is already faltering, with Afghan President Hamid Karzai exploring the possibility of cutting his own deals with the Taliban and other warlords. And that is largely the result of Obama’s botched strategy, whose twin troop surges were designed not to rout the Taliban militarily, but to strike a political deal with them from a position of strength. But, as CIA director Leon Panetta admitted, “We have seen no evidence that [the Taliban] are truly interested in reconciliation.”
Why would the Taliban be interested in negotiating a deal with the Americans, given Obama’s public declaration, just weeks after coming to office, that he was interested in a military exit from Afghanistan? The Afghan Taliban and their sponsors, the Pakistan military, simply want to wait out the Americans.
Last year, with the stroke of his pen, Obama ended his predecessor’s “global war on terror.” But renaming it a “struggle” or a “strategic challenge” has not changed the grim realities on the ground.
The US has been lucky to escape further terrorist strikes since September 11, 2001, despite several attempts. By contrast, India’s location next to the Af-Pak has left it far more vulnerable, and the country has since suffered a series of major attacks – from the assault on its parliament in December 2001 to the terrorist siege of Mumbai in 2008.
Afghanistan and Pakistan, two artificially created states with no roots in history, have searched endlessly for a national identity. Today, they have emerged as the global epicenter of transnational terrorism and the heroin trade. Although Pakistan is now the largest recipient of US aid in the world, the Failed States Index2010, created by Foreign Policy and the Fund for Peace, ranks the country 10th, between Guinea and Haiti. Unlike in other failed states, however, in Pakistan state-nurtured terrorism and state-supported nuclear smuggling uniquely intersect.
To compound the situation, the political border between Afghanistan and Pakistan has now ceased to exist in practice. The 2,640-kilometer Durand Line, a British-colonial invention that divided the large Pashtun community when it was established in 1893 as the border between British-led India and Afghanistan, has long been despised and rejected by Afghanistan.
Today, the Durand Line exists only on maps. On the ground, it has little political, ethnic, or economic relevance, even as the Af-Pak region has become a magnet for the world’s jihadists. A de facto Pashtunistan, long sought by Pashtuns, has now grown up on the ruins of an ongoing Islamist militancy, but without any political authority in charge. The disappearance of the Af-Pak political border seems irreversible, undermining Pakistan’s own territorial integrity.
Yet, as if the forces of terror could be neatly boxed in, the US has scaled back its objective to contain terrorism regionally – a strategy that promises to keep the Af-Pak problem a festering threat to global security. Indeed, NATO’s withdrawal plan is likely to lead to a realignment of ethnic forces, and thus to greater volatility.
Afghanistan is not Vietnam. A withdrawal of US and other NATO troops will not mean the end of the war, because the enemy will continue to target Western interests, wherever they may be. The hope that terrorism can be regionally contained is a dangerous exercise in self-delusion.