Muhammad Omar Iftikhar
Ten months remain before the US-led NATO troops make their historic withdrawal from Afghanistan in December 2014. The war-torn country, famous for its poppy production, has been under US dominance since 2001, and the relationship between the Pentagon and Kabul might not budge in 2015 either. Over the last couple of years, the US has been changing its statement regarding the number of troops that will remain as a ‘residual force’ once the withdrawal actually takes place.
Joseph F. Dunford, the US Commander in Afghanistan stated in May 2013 that the US should leave some troops behind to monitor the transition of power and security arrangements in Afghanistan. Recently, US military leaders submitted to the White House their proposal to keep a residual force of nearly ten thousand troops in Afghanistan after 2014.
However, implementation of this proposal will depend upon President Hamid Karzai’s decision to sign the security agreement also known as the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA).
According to sources, if President Karzai refuses to sign the SOFA then the US will not keep any force beyond 2014. However, this agreement has kept President Karzai and Afghanistan’s fate at a standstill because if he refuses to sign it, Afghanistan will not receive the US military support fund that amounts to $8 billion. Over the last decade, Afghanistan has seen considerable amount of infrastructural decay and it requires these funds for rehabilitation.
During the post-2014 era, Afghanistan’s uncertain political situation might create volatility in South Asia when extremist factions will walk lose in the country. It is, however, unclear as to the level of law and order that the residual force will be able to maintain. Moreover, Afghanistan’s incoming President would need to maintain close ties with the West and Afghanistan’s neighboring nation, specially Pakistan and Iran. In addition, Pakistan-US ties must remain positive if Islamabad wants the withdrawal of troops to continue without any political dispute.
The recent meeting between Pakistan’s National Security Advisor, Sartaj Aziz, and US Secretary of State, John Kerry, also indicated that Washington and Islamabad are concerned over a smooth withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan and expect a smooth withdrawal.
In addition, the talks signaled at leveling the playing field between Pakistan and the US so that the troubled allies can perform their best in the days leading to the December 2014 pullout and beyond. Following the May 2011 raid in Abbotabad, the relationship between Washington and Islamabad experienced many twists however, with the December 2014 deadline approaching; the two countries would want to mend any setbacks in their ties.
Although the troops’ withdrawal from Afghanistan is seen as a major event that could change the South Asian politics specially Pak-Afghan relationship and Pak-US ties, it is also important to understand its effect on Pakistan. Where the withdrawal of troops will reduce US involvement in Afghanistan’s political affairs, it will create friction between Pak-Afghan ties that will not bode well for either Kabul or Islamabad.
Moreover, Afghanistan’s internal security arrangements will become a hurdle in its progress as it is supposed that the security apparatus – comprising of the Afghan National Army (ANA) and the Afghan National Police (ANP) – will be unable to maintain peace and internal stability once the US troops leave the country. Perhaps, this is one reason why the US presented the idea of a residual force to remain in Afghanistan otherwise another civil war might erupt. IN case of a civil war, Pakistan will have to bear its direct effect, as the refugees will once again find shelter on Pakistani soil. This will be a political and diplomatic disaster for Pakistan, which is already buried neck deep in solving its internal security issues.
Although President Karzai came into power in 2001 with Washington’s patronage, he is now showing his disagreements with the US.
Although he will be stepping down as a two-time President after the elections in April 2014, his ties with President Obama, it seems, will not be in his good books. President Karzai, while talking to an international newspaper said that, “This whole 12 years was one of constant pleading with America to treat the lives of our civilians as lives of people…They did not work for me, they worked against me.”
While the residual force option has always been there for the US to follow, reports are that Washington also has a ‘zero option’ strategy, which means pulling out all troops from Afghanistan. However, the US will use the ‘zero option’ by 2017. With the uncertainty looming over Afghanistan since 2001, it seems that the US residual force might remain in Afghanistan even after 2017.
(The writer is a freelance columnist for various English dailies and writes on international relations with focus on South Asia. He tweets @omariftikhar)
Afghanistan’s fate hangs in balance
Muhammad Omar Iftikhar