Secretary of State Kerry and Defense Chief Hagel take over the baton for what the Obama administration and Karzai's Government hope is the final leg of intense engagement in the war stricken country of Afghanistan. US Foreign Policy and the Department of Defense will spend the next year evolving a disengagement strategy that untangles itself from over a decade of conflict catalyzed by the September 2001 attacks on America. Agreement on what constitutes the main threat to the government of Afghanistan in 2013, along with a cohesive Afghan-American political pact will be decisive in determining the size and fabric of residual US military activity. Recent discourse suggests, however, that diplomatic resuscitation between the two higher offices may be in order.
Political overtures from President Obama's State of the Union Address to President Karzai's accusations of US collusion with the Taliban during Hagel's visit to Kabul last weekend, demonstrate a clear divergence of opinion, serving to do nothing but undermine the macro conditions for the withdrawal of US forces.
The task that the West has set itself in 'rebuilding' Afghanistan (whether it should have pursued such a mammoth task remains highly contentious) does transcend the essential requirement for robust, properly trained, well-equipped and motivated Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) - namely the Afghan National Army (ANA) and the more problematic Police (ANP). The other strategic lines of development undergoing a deep overhaul also include: the outreach of governance from Kabul to the provinces, districts and shuras (ISAF's ultimate mission); economic reconstruction; and the thorny issue of ameliorating narcotics production - the financial centerpiece of insurgent activity and corruption (Grechen Peters' book 'Seeds of Terror' is a disturbing eye-opener and a highly recommended read).
But it is the ability of the ANSF to suppress the threats to key activity across all lines of development that remains the linchpin to progress in the country. Remarkably, it appears the threat that catalyzed US forces to enter Afghanistan in 2001 remains the current administration's benchmark for withdrawal in 2013 - this is absolutely not the case.
The White House Press Release published after the President's State of the Union address bases withdrawal metrics against its "core objectives - defeating al Qaeda and ensuring it can never again use Afghanistan as a launching pad for attacks against us." The press release does give the Taliban a cursory mention in one paragraph in the context of offering a place at the political table, but rather ambiguously, does not clearly indicate the insurgency as the biggest threat to Afghanistan's future.
Al Qaeda has long since disappeared from the Afghan landscape - although arguably remains just as much of a threat to the West as it did ten years ago through relocating to Pakistan, Yemen and North Africa. In choosing to support the development and implementation of political, economic and security institutions in Afghanistan to deter a resurgence of al Qaeda, the West underestimated the resilience and lethality of the region's organic based insurgency - The Taliban. The organization that bases its ideals on Sharia Law has prevented President Karzai, ISAF and the US from dominating Afghanistan's agenda - even at the height of US deployment levels. Moreover, the Taliban's network extends beyond Afghanistan's borders into Pakistan, where the US must also concentrate its diplomatic efforts with Islamabad if stability is to be realized as force levels reduce. The Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, not 'al Qaeda and its affiliates,' should be placed as the centre of gravity to any US withdrawal strategy. An unintended consequence of the Taliban seizing more control of Afghanistan in the aftermath of the US departure could be a resurgence of al Qaeda - an unacceptable situation that alone should demand greater Afghan-American political union.
The West's involvement in Afghanistan in the 21st century has evolved significantly. In response to the attacks on America in 2001, the US mission was relatively uncomplicated, tactical and kinetic: locate and destroy al Qaeda training camps situated in the lawless landscape of Afghanistan that were being used to facilitate attacks on major urban centers of population in the West. US military strikes were clinical forcing most of the al Qaeda leadership across the border East into Pakistan - success was easier to measure through Bomb Damage Assessment (BDA) reporting. Moreover, for most of the International Community, the operation to target Osama Bin Laden's organization was a legitimate strategy that the US could have maintained to deter al Qaeda's use of Afghanistan as a launch pad for global terror.
Twelve years later, the mission is very different, and the threats have metastasized like a cancer. With an insurgency that defiantly looks to the West and iterates 'you may have the watches but we [the Taliban] have the time', Mullah Omar's organization is still no closer to be being defeated. You could be forgiven for not having faith that a significant reduction in western forces in 2014 might some how turn the tide of success. The only terms that might promote stability whilst enabling the US to reduce its security footprint in Afghanistan could be the notion of a power sharing executive. Not too dissimilar to what we see in Northern Ireland today with the political arm of the Irish Republican Army (Sinn Fein) now forming part of the governance power base. Agreed, there are still problems with minority groups planning terrorist activity but the scale is demonstrably reduced from the height of the troubles. The Taliban forming part of any power sharing executive remains in the kindling stages. The democratic principle of being voted into power and the repercussions of a Taliban candidate not wining a seat would also require a great deal of thought but such alternatives should be pursued as essential, not desirable, if the US wishes to underline its involvement in Afghanistan for good. Karzai should also be embracing such diplomatic channels of thought, rather than publically dismissing it and unhelpfully accusing the US of collaborating with the insurgency.
The International Herald Tribune reported on March 8, 2013 that up to 17 Afghan soldiers had been recently executed by Taliban insurgents in the generally quiet Badakhshan province. Despite the confidence of the current US administration in ANSF capability and Karzai's defiance that Afghanistan does not face a 'doomsday scenario', evidence is unfortunately lacking. Are the ANSF really capable of independently defeating the threat - the Afghan and Pakistan Taliban? Can more be achieved through diplomatic channels with the Afghanistan and Pakistan Taliban as well as improved communications between the politicians in Washington, Kabul and Islamabad? And is the US placing what forces it leaves behind in more danger by withdrawing the mainstay of its capability without the prerequisite political foundations in place? Too many lives have been lost, money spent, and time invested in Afghanistan not to pursue and set the apposite conditions for departure. Today - Al Qaeda having relocated as an organization (but with no guarantee it won't return) continues to threaten the West through its global terror campaign and the Taliban maintains a stronghold in Afghanistan and Pakistan - was this really the precursor for withdrawal after a decade of conflict? Only time will tell...