Monday, December 29, 2014

Daily Times Editorial Dec 30, 2014

The last trumpet A low key, secret ceremony on Sunday in a sports hall in the NATO headquarters in Kabul for security reasons marked the end of the US/ISAF combat mission in Afghanistan. After 13 years, the longest foreign war in the US’s history, the huge expenditure and loss of human lives leave behind a still precarious situation. Whereas NATO lost 3,485 soldiers in the war, of whom 2,300 were American, it is nevertheless difficult to share NATO Commander US General John Campbell’s rosy spin on what the intervention achieved. Superior force of arms allowed the US to relatively easily roll over the Taliban government in 2001 and, with the induction of NATO troops, reaching at its peak in 2011 130,000 troops belonging to 50 countries, the interventionists were only able to hold the cities and select areas of the countryside, particularly in the east and southeast strongholds of the Taliban. Of course the latter were able to take full advantage of the safe havens they enjoyed across the border on Pakistani soil all these years. The worry for policy makers in Washington as well as informed observers of Afghanistan is the possibility of a collapse of the carefully constructed regime in Kabul once the foreign troops leave in bulk in a few days, with a residual force of about 10,000 troops left behind on a training and support mission that has lately been upgraded to assisting the Afghan forces if they come under attack from the insurgents. The level of violence has reached unprecedented levels since the beginning of 2014, with civilian casualties up 19 percent to 3,188 and Afghan army and police casualties at 4,600 in just the first 10 months of the year. This figure of Afghan army and police casualties is higher for just 2014 than all the foreign troops killed in 13 years of warfare. That in itself is an indicator of the manner in which the Taliban have ratcheted up their attacks. Their spokesmen are triumphantly marking the formal end of the combat mission as a victory that has seen the foreign troops ‘fleeing’. The big question is what would happen if the Taliban decide to go all out on the offensive in 2015, a likely prospect given that they have given no indication of being interested in talks with the Kabul government. A reverse on the battlefield would create pressures on US President Obama to send troops to Afghanistan once again in a parallel with what has happened in Iraq after the emergence of Islamic State (IS). This political hot potato may not be easy to handle if public surveys and polls of American opinion are any guide. All of them show that from 90 percent support for the intervention in 2001, the figures of those still approving the invasion and occupation and optimistic about its eventual outcome have shrunk to about 30-40 percent, with a significant minority declaring the war a mistake and being pessimistic about its eventual results. Obama came to office promising to undo Bush’s two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Whereas the latter one was wound up earlier, it proved a premature withdrawal, necessitating at the least an air power intervention in the Iraqi and Syrian civil wars against the rampaging IS. A return to Afghanistan would be politically unpopular in a US still struggling with economic recession and hardship for large numbers of its own citizens. The first democratic transition in Afghanistan, though not without hiccups, has brought President Ashraf Ghani to power in a unity government with his rival Abdullah Abdullah, accommodated as the Chief Executive of the country, a newly created post considered the equivalent of a prime minister. Ghani has attempted to reposition Afghanistan by signing the Bilateral Security Agreement his predecessor Karzai balked at at the last moment, reached out to important countries such as the US and its allies, Saudi Arabia, China and Pakistan. The last in particular is critical for cooperation on the porous Pak-Afghan border if terrorism is to be stemmed in either country. The prospects for such cross-border cooperation are better today than they have ever been, particularly after the massacre of schoolchildren in Peshawar. But there is little room for complacency. Apart from the political and security challenges on his plate, President Ashraf Ghani has to confront the reputation of Afghanistan as one of the most corrupt countries in the world and the leading opium producer. Afghanistan needs all the help it can get at this moment of the foreign troops’ withdrawal, and Pakistan is arguably the most important of its actual or potential partners in the struggle against terrorism.

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