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Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Preventing an Afghan meltdown

 Syed Mansur Hashim

THAT the United States (US) has put limitations on what actions the allied forces will perform in Afghanistan under the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) leaves much to be desired, at least as long as the new Afghan government is concerned. 12,500 troops on the ground from January 1, 2015 with nearly 10,000 coming from the US alone, are supposed to hold in check the Taleban and its allies. However, given the guidelines of the BSA, this force will help transfer the bulk of the fighting to the estimated 350,000 Afghan National Forces (ANF). 
Voices are deeply divided as to precisely how effective this new policy will be. The plan as it stands envisages the ANF to head national security by 2017. The political climate is altogether not too glum. The third democratically elected government is in power. The billions of dollars invested in the country over the more than one decade of western engagement in the country has helped improve Afghanistan's “capacity for self-governance, improved national health care, expanded schooling opportunities for Afghan youth, especially girls, and a better connected Afghanistan to the outside world than ever before. Afghanistan also began 2015 with a 350,000-member security force consisting of an army, a limited air force, national police and border and customs forces.”(Source: Foreign Policy Research Institute)
The flipside to this rosy picture is that a large percentage of the Afghan populace still suffers from extreme poverty. Being a landlocked country does not help the country in terms of trade and the overt dependence on foreign aid remains the Achilles heel. There is also a massive shortage of housing for nearly half the population. There is simply no denying the fact that many of the “gains” Afghanistan has achieved since 2002 were funded by multilateral agencies and these include both the building of infrastructure and institutions. Salaries of both the bureaucracy and the military are dependent on foreign aid. What is sad to see is that despite sitting on some of significant deposits of precious minerals like copper, lithium, uranium, iron ore, cobalt, natural gas and oil, foreign investment has not been forthcoming primarily due to the fluid political situation on the ground. 
It is not without reason that the Taleban refuse to go away. There is no doubt that the Taleban's principal supporters in the Pakistan military and intelligence community continue to patronise the group in an effort to influence the political discourse in Afghanistan. The increased intelligence sharing between India and Afghanistan and the growing cosy relationship between these two countries on military matters make the Taleban dilemma a festering wound in Afghan politics. With India now giving more direct military aid to ANF in terms of training and equipping, the stage is set for the Taleban to remain very much present in Afghanistan. Precisely how the US hopes to counter the growing fear that Afghanistan will become the country of choice for militant organisations where they train and use it as a base to counter Western interests in the region remain to be seen; especially with a much reduced force of less than 10,000 personnel on the ground.
Despite the impressive numbers, the Afghan army has been less than effective in countering the Taleban in the south, the east and in the capital city itself. This is so because the US-led allied forces are no longer there. Indeed the Afghan forces have actually ceded ground to the Taleban in areas in the south and east…gains that had come after much fighting between the US-led allies and the Taleban in years gone by. Going by numbers, ANF has sustained 4,600 deaths in October, 2014 alone. It has serious deficiencies in intelligence support, in medical evacuation and / or supporting fire in terms of artillery and air bombardment. The bottom line is that 2014 has not been a good year to boost foreign investment confidence in the country. Without foreign investment to replace donor-handouts, there is serious doubt Afghanistan will be able to hold its own in the mid to long term. The drastic pullout from Afghanistan without putting into place the challenges of logistics, an intelligence backbone, without training and equipping air support and counter-insurgency forces will all collude to a dramatic turn of events in Afghanistan in the coming year, one that will hardly help in making “the world a safer place from terrorism.”
So what can be done? It is imperative that the US commit itself to build up a workable intelligence gathering and sharing framework in Afghanistan and beyond. The ANF is still in its infancy when it comes to combating militant outfits and requires direct military support in its operations. There is also the need to comprehend that there is no alternative to training and maintaining an “operational military presence in Afghanistan.” These key elements need to be worked into a revised BSA. The alternative is to let things lie as they are and watch as Afghanistan descends into another Iraq-type situation. The only problem with that is that the problems associated with militancy will spiral beyond the borders of Afghanistan onto neighbouring countries and beyond.

The writer is Assistant Editor, The Daily Star. 

Source:  The Daily Star, 10 March 2015