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Toward Post-American Afghanistan

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The solidarity toward Afghanistan that was on display at Sunday's conference in Tokyo, which was attended by some 70 governments and international aid organizations, was impressive.

Afghan president Hamid Karzai received a pledge of $20 billion through 2015, with the United States expected to provide some $2 billion of that sum annually till 2017. This commitment follows NATO'S promise, made at its May summit on Afghanistan in Chicago, to fund the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), to the tune of $4.1 billion a year.

In an additional effort to boost Afghans' confidence, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton stopped in Kabul en route to Tokyo and assured Karzai that the United States would not forsake Afghanistan. And she announced that that Afghanistan would be designated a "major non-NATO ally" -- a move that makes it part of select group that includes Israel, Pakistan, and Japan and qualifies it for various special security related benefits.

Mrs. Clinton knows that the Afghans are fearful of being forgotten; they've had the experience before: Afghanistan became an afterthought for Washington once the (largely) U.S.-armed Afghan resistance forced the Soviet army to withdraw in 1989 after a decade of fighting that killed as many as one million Afghans (and perhaps more) and drove another 4-5 million into Iran and Pakistan as refugees.

But neither money nor soothing words can mask the reality, which is that the United States, after ramping up its military presence in Afghanistan by 30,000 troops under the December 2009 Obama surge, is leaving.

Except for a "residual presence" of trainers and Special Operations Forces -- the precise number hasn't been specified but the estimate ranges between 10,000 and 30,000 -- the United States is winding down its long war -- and quickly. Even as the fall gets underway the number of U.S. troops will drop from a peak of 100,000 after the completion of the surge to about 68,000. And from that lower level there will be additional periodic reductions until the president's pledge to cease major combat operations by the end of 2014 is fulfilled.

If the U.S. is leaving, so are the other members of the 50-country coalition known as the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). The non-U.S. ISAF states that have provided the most combat troops have either left (the Dutch), are doing so (France: on an accelerated timetable to make good on President Francois Hollande's campaign promise), or have specified an exit schedule (Britain and Canada).

Thus Afghanistan is moving into a post-American phase.

No one knows what lies ahead, but a couple of things are clear.

First, though Obama's surge and stepped-up drone attacks -- the latter represent the president's signature in warfare -- have taken a big toll on the Taliban (particularly by breaking its hold over the southern provinces of Helmand, Kandahar, and Oruzgan and by killing a number of senior commanders), the White House's calculation that the added pressure would force the insurgents to the negotiating table and provide the United States superior leverage in the ensuing negotiations has proven erroneous.

Battered though they are, the Taliban have displayed a dogged capacity for regeneration -- thanks in no small measure to the sanctuaries available to them in Pakistan's Pushtun-majority Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province and its Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), and they have not faced mass defections. Despite hints and false starts, the movement's leaders have shown no serious, sustained interest in peace talks, let alone any deal under which they would relinquish their arms and join Afghan politics. The Taliban remain deadly. Just this weekend, as news of the Tokyo summit hit the airwaves, they killed 10 ISAF soldiers, eight of them American.

We should not be surprised that the Taliban haven't yielded even after suffering big losses. Think of it this way: If you were a senior Taliban leader witnessing the departure of United States and its allies would you rush to cut a deal? Or would you urge your warriors to hang tough given that the insurgency's strategy of wearing down the enemy -- and that's what it always has been -- is working?

Now the Taliban are not going to ride into Kabul in 2015 and then take over the rest of Afghanistan. Quite apart from the remaining U.S. troops, the Afghan army has gotten better at fighting, the non-Pushtun Afghanistan population (the Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras) despises the Taliban and is capable of mustering substantial forces, and Afghans, though war-weary, hardly yearn for the return of Taliban rule.

That said, the Taliban will be a much more powerful force in post-American Afghanistan, politically and militarily, and may well regain some lost territory. It remains to be seen how effective the ANSF, which has been built up by the U.S. and its partners at breakneck speed, is when it is forced to face the Taliban on its own and how effective the Taliban has been in infiltrating its ranks.

If the change in the balance of power within Afghanistan is one thing to watch in the
post-American phase, a second is the conduct of Afghanistan's powerful neighbors: Pakistan, India, Russia, China, India, and Iran.

Each has important interests in the country and all, with the exception of Russia, already have a substantial presence of one sort or the other (China and India's investments in Afghanistan's raw materials sector are especially noteworthy).

But this group has no history of working together constructively -- though there are convergent interests between China and Pakistan, Iran and India, and Russia and India -- and there are no regional institutions to which they all belong that might facilitate collaborative action. The danger, once the U.S. is down to a minimal military presence, is a freewheeling and destabilizing competition in which each of these countries backs various Afghan clients with whom it has built ties.

It's a safe bet that the rivalry among Afghanistan's neighbors will increase.

China and India have important economic assets to protect, and the U.S. won't be there to stand guard. Moreover, each wants to limit the other's influence.

Pakistan and India have incompatible visions of Afghanistan's future; the former's strategic nightmare is an Afghan government aligned with the latter.

China, Russia, and India fear, albeit for somewhat different reasons, the rise of a radical Islamic government in Afghanistan, but that's not likely to foster cooperation between New Delhi (Pakistan's nemesis) and Beijing (Pakistan ally).

Iran has a major economic presence in western Afghanistan, especially Heart province, which has a substantial Tajik population (the Tajiks are linguistically and culturally connected to Iran), and also sees itself as the guardian of the Tajiks in the north and the (Shi'a) Hazara in central Afghanistan. Moreover, Shi'a Iran does not want an Afghanistan dominated, let alone run, by the Taliban, militant and puritanical Sunnis with a record of abusing Afghanistan's Shi'a minority.

If Afghanistan neighbors cooperate they can do much good for Afghans; alas, the historical record suggests that constructive collective action will not be their default option.

After 2,038 soldiers killed -- and many wounded, not a few seriously -- and some $546 billion spent, the United States is winding up its war in Afghanistan, where it will have spent twice the amount of time fighting a ground war as it did in World War II or Vietnam. For their part, America's allies have lost 1,043 troops (422 of them British) and are even keener to get out.

No one, however, has suffered more than the Afghans, whose country has been a war zone, almost without letup, for 34 years. But they cannot leave as ISAF is doing; Afghanistan is their homeland.

After what Afghans have endured, they have every right to hope that the post-American phase brings good things. That's why they will watch with interest, and trepidation, to see if Hilary Clinton promises and the pledges made at Chicago and Tokyo are kept.