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Afghanistan’s future: 5 burning questions

Washington, March 3 (DNA): In his State of the Union address, President Obama reaffirmed that the country’s war in Afghanistan would be over by the end of 2014.He also laid out more specifics.Of the approximately 66,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan now, more than half — 34,000 — will come home in the next year, Obama said.

At the same time, Afghan troops will assume most of the responsibility for combat missions.

“This spring, our forces will move into a support role, while Afghan security forces take the lead,” Obama said.

It was previously expected that Afghan forces would take the lead in combat missions by the middle of this year. But a U.S. official told CNN that the military transition has accelerated and that Afghans will lead all security operations by March.

What does this news mean for Afghanistan and America’s longest war? Here are some key questions that will be asked in the coming months:

1. Are the Afghan troops up to the task?

There are certainly doubts.

A Pentagon review in December claimed that only one of 23 Afghan army brigades was capable of functioning on its own.

Meanwhile, literacy rates are low, desertion rates are high, and many deserters have joined the insurgency. There also have been a troubling number of “green-on-blue” attacks: Afghan troops attacking their American comrades.

But Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has spoken positively about the progress Afghans have made in growing their army, reducing violence and becoming more self-sufficient. Afghan forces now lead nearly 90% of operations across the country.

“We’re on the right path to give (Afghanistan) the opportunity to govern itself,” Panetta said earlier this month.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai said he welcomes the U.S. troop withdrawal and insists his army can defend the country against the Taliban.

“It is exactly our job to deal with it, and we are capable of dealing with it,” Karzai said during an interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour.

What the army needs now, Karzai says, is more equipment and firepower. He came to the Pentagon last month with a wish list asking for more helicopters, drones and other hardware, according to a senior defense official.

“We need an air force. We need air mobility,” Karzai told Amanpour. “We need proper mechanized forces. We need, you know, armored vehicles and tanks and all that.”

2. What presence will the U.S. have after 2014?

The plan is to withdraw all combat troops but keep a residual force in the country to help train Afghans and carry out counterterrorism operations when needed.

The size of that force is still being discussed.

Gen. John Allen, the former commander of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, recommended between 6,000 and 15,000 troops. But that figure was lowered to a range between 2,500 and 9,000, according to a defense official.

There might not be any U.S. troops at all if the United States cannot come to an agreement over immunity with Afghanistan. There was no American presence in Iraq at the end of that war because the Iraqi government refused to extend legal protections to U.S. troops.

Karzai, who’s in favor of a residual force, said he would put the immunity decision in the hands of Afghan elders, and he expressed confidence that he could persuade the elders to see things his way.

Leaving no U.S. troops at all would be a major misstep, said Peter Bergen, CNN’s national security analyst. He said the U.S. has abandoned Afghanistan already, in 1989, and the decision left America with little understanding of the power vacuum that led to the Taliban’s rise in the first place.

“The current public discussion of zero U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan … will encourage those hardliner elements of the Taliban who have no interest in a negotiated settlement and believe they can simply wait the Americans out,” Bergen wrote in an op-ed for “It also discourages the many millions of Afghans who see a longtime U.S. presence as the best guarantor that the Taliban won’t come back in any meaningful way.”

3. What’s at stake?

The main fear among the Afghan people is that the country could revert to another civil war once the United States withdraws its combat troops. The Taliban are still “resilient and determined,” according to a recent Pentagon report, and insurgents continue to carry out attacks and pose a major security threat.

“Some people we’ve spoken to sort of take it for granted that there’s going to be a civil war when the United States leaves,” said CNN’s Erin Burnett on a recent trip to Afghanistan. “It happened before when the Soviet Union left (in 1989).”

For all the violence Afghanistan has seen in the past decade, it has also seen major advancements in human rights and quality of life.

“During the Taliban, basically there were thousands of girls going to school in Afghanistan. Now you have millions of girls going to school,” Burnett said. “So there’s been real progress on women’s rights. Obviously there remain a lot of problems — honor killings, forced marriages, domestic violence — but there has been real progress.”

Retired Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, once America’s top commander in Afghanistan, said the Afghan people are “terrified.”

“They’re terrified because they think they have something to lose,” McChrystal said. “There has been progress made. There is a better life. There are girls in school. There are things that are better than they were and opportunities potentially ahead.

“But they’re afraid that if we completely abandon them in 2014, as they perceive we did in 1989, (things) would all go back.”

And in Washington, there are worries that the wrong move could put the United States right back where it started, with nothing to show for a bloody conflict that started in 2001.

Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Buck McKeon, R-California, expressed concern last week that a hasty withdrawal could be “needlessly fraught with risk.”

“Since the president took the commendable step of deploying a surge to Afghanistan in 2009, we have known that our hard-fought gains are fragile and reversible,” McKeon said. “That isn’t my assessment, but the consistent opinion of experts both military and civilian.”

4. Who will lead after Karzai?

Afghanistan’s only president of this century won’t be in charge for much longer.

Elections are scheduled for April 2014, and Karzai has reached the term limit set by his country’s constitution. He told Amanpour it’s “absolutely time to go.”

“A new president will come to this country. A new government will come to this country. And I’ll be a happily retired civil servant,” he said.

So while Afghanistan oversees a major military transition, it also will have to make a political transition.

Who will lead the country during this critical moment in its history? Will the vote go smoothly, without violence and without controversy? There were reports of ballot tampering and other violations in the last one.

The answers might be just as important to Afghanistan’s security as the readiness of its troops.

“The single biggest challenge for us is the political transition, the elections of 2014,” said Saad Mohseni, the media mogul behind Afghanistan’s Tolo Television. “(If) we have credible elections, I think we’ll be OK for the next five, six years. (If) we don’t, there is a real danger that we’ll see instability, especially in 2014 as the U.S. troops withdraw.”

5. What part will the Taliban play?

Despite the ongoing insurgency, Karzai seems eager to resume stalled peace talks with the Taliban and include them in the political process.

The Taliban pulled out of talks last year, but Karzai said last month they “are very much conveying to us that they want to have peace talks. They’re also people. They’re also families. They also suffer, like the rest of Afghans are suffering.”

Javid Ahmad, a Kabul native now with the Asia Program of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, believes revitalized peace talks are essential to Afghanistan’s future and to the legacy of America’s war.

“If withdrawing responsibly in 2014 is indeed high on President Obama’s agenda, then he has little choice but to prioritize and accelerate the peace talks, negotiate a cease-fire between all sides, and reach a settlement that ensures that the Taliban lay down their weapons,” Ahmad wrote in a recent column.

But will the Taliban be willing to cooperate? And if they enter negotiations, how much of an influence would they have on an Afghan society that has seen so many changes in the past decade?

“There have to be some red lines,” said Jawed Ludin, Afghanistan’s deputy foreign minister for political affairs. “Some of the achievements that we’ve had in the last 10 years can’t be negotiated.”

Karzai sounded confident that most of the Taliban would acknowledge this.

“I think there is now a critical mass in Afghanistan of the educated, of the Afghan people who want a future of progress and stability,” he said. “And I think also that the Taliban recognize that this corner has been turned, the majority of them. Some may be there among them who would not — who would remain, you know, in the darkest of the mindset possible. But those are a few.”



Little hope amid push for Afghans on peace

Kabul, March 3 (Newswire): Suddenly, the effort to strike a deal with the Taliban is very publicly back on the front burner.

Frozen for months last year as another fighting season raged in Afghanistan, and as election-year politics consumed American attention, diplomats and political leaders from eight countries are now mounting the most concerted campaign to date to bring the Afghan government and its Taliban foes together to negotiate a peace deal.

The latest push came early this month at Chequers, the country residence of the British prime minister, David Cameron, who joined President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan and President Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan in calling for fast-track peace talks. Weeks earlier in Washington, Mr. Karzai met with President Obama and committed publicly to have his representatives meet a Taliban delegation in Doha, Qatar, to start the process.

Yet so far the energized reach for peace has achieved little, officials say, except to cement a growing consensus that regional stability demands some sort of political settlement with the Taliban, after a war that cost tens of thousands of Afghan and Western lives and nearly a trillion dollars failed to put down the insurgency.

Interviews with more than two dozen officials involved in the effort suggest a fast-spinning process that has yet to gain real traction and seems to have little chance of achieving even its most limited goal: bringing the Afghan government and Taliban leadership together at the table before the bulk of the American fighting force leaves Afghanistan in 2014.

“The year 2014 has begun to be seen as a magical date, both inside and outside Afghanistan,” said Rangin Dadfar Spanta, the Afghan national security adviser. “It’s difficult to find what is realistic and what is illusion.”

That is not least because the major players — Pakistan, Afghanistan, the United States and the Taliban — have fundamentally different visions of how to achieve a post-2014 peace, according to accounts of setbacks in the process.

For the Afghans, the simple act of considering what a peace deal might look like has inflamed factional differences that are still raw two decades after the country’s civil war.

The Afghan High Peace Council, which Mr. Karzai has empowered to negotiate for his government, has put forward a document called “Peace Process Roadmap to 2015.” While many Afghan leaders say they have not seen the proposal, first reported by McClatchy in December, those who have view it as outlining a striking number of potential concessions to the Taliban and to Pakistan. They include provisions for the Taliban’s becoming a political party and anticipation that some of the most important government positions could be open to them, including provincial governorships, police chief jobs and cabinet positions.

Some Western commentators as well as Afghans view this as returning to the past or opening the door to a division of the country. Senior members of the powerful Tajik and Hazara factions, both of which suffered greatly under Taliban rule, charged that they had been left out of the deliberations. When they are asked about striking a peace deal, they make veiled references to a renewal of ethnic strife.

“The president is acting on an ethnic basis,” said Haji Mohammed Mohaqiq, a powerful ethnic Hazara leader from northern Afghanistan. “He is trying to win the hearts of a group of Taliban so they back him in the election.”

Mr. Karzai is a Pashtun, the ethnic group predominant in the Taliban. Mr. Spanta, the national security adviser, countered that any realistic attempt to end a war involves compromise. “I think peace in a country after 33 or 34 years has a price — a very heavy price,” he said. “But we are paying a heavy price every day with our lives.”

One factor fueling the peace drive is that Pakistan, long considered the Taliban’s silent sponsor, professes to have had a change of heart. For more than a year, Pakistani generals and ministers have assiduously courted their traditional rivals in Afghanistan, particularly from non-Pashtun ethnic groups, as part of a strategy that, they say, favors an inclusive democratic settlement after 2014 — even one that does not include the Taliban’s full return to power.

But Pakistan’s biggest public gesture so far — the release of 26 Taliban prisoners from Pakistani jails, intended as a trust-building measure to help the peace process — has been shadowed by the old mistrust and accusations of double-crossing.

The Pakistanis refused Afghan demands to release the prisoners into Afghan custody, arguing it would scare the Taliban away. “The moment we hand them over, it would be the end of the process,” said a senior Pakistani official, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

Instead, the Taliban prisoners were allowed to roam free, prompting fears from some Afghan and some American officials that they would simply return to the fight — at least two already have, according to one Western official. At Chequers, the Pakistanis agreed to give the Afghans one-week notice of all future prisoner releases.

“Pakistan is serious about facilitating the peace process,” said Talat Masood, a retired Pakistani general and political commentator, citing growing fears that chaos in Afghanistan after 2014 would further destabilize his country.

But Mr. Masood added that the military was also hedging its bets by maintaining some Taliban links. “They want to retain a certain level of leverage in talks,” he said. “That’s the crucial nuance.”

Hopes for Pakistani cooperation dimmed further when Pakistan’s most senior cleric pulled out of a meeting planned for March with Afghan clerics in Kabul, after disagreements over the role of the Taliban. But Afghan clerics appeared to believe that the meeting would go forward, illustrating the tentative and equivocal nature of the peace effort. “We want them to invite the Afghan Taliban to the talks. Without them, peace is not possible in Afghanistan,” said Maulana Tahir Ashrafi, head of the Pakistan Ulema Council.

Afghan senior clerics said they remained hopeful that the talks would be held and that a majority of Pakistani clerics would attend.

The most immediate obstacle to talks is an apparent standoff between Mr. Karzai and the Taliban. The insurgents refuse to deal with Mr. Karzai, whom they have branded as an American “puppet.” The president, in turn, recently reiterated his demand that the Taliban must recognize the legitimacy of his government and speak to the High Peace Council, which he has appointed to negotiate with the insurgency and which has representatives from many Afghan factions.

Mr. Karzai, forever fearful of being sidelined by a Western-dominated talks process, has effectively banned the kind of informal discussions with Taliban leaders that have raised hopes over the past few months, including Afghan-centric conferences in France and Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and, earlier, in Germany and Japan — even though those talks appeared helpful in easing tensions between longtime enemies.

Pressure from Mr. Karzai forced the United Nations to abandon a planned “Track Two” meeting, an unofficial diplomacy session involving Taliban representatives and Afghan political leaders, due to take place in Turkmenistan this month, diplomats in Kabul and Islamabad said.

Within the Taliban, a fierce debate is under way between commanders who support talks and those who have never given up on seeking military victory, instead biding time until the Americans are mostly gone, Taliban watchers say. The group’s leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar, widely presumed to be sequestered at his hide-out inside Pakistan, has been silent on the subject. Even if he were to support a deal, it is unclear whether his movement is sufficiently united to stick to it.

The Americans have quietly pledged not to move forward without the Afghan government’s benediction, so previous efforts to build confidence with the Taliban by releasing some of their prisoners from the Guantánamo Bay prison camp are on hold, although the Americans retain the right to consider a prisoner release for strategic reasons of their own. An American soldier is being held by the Taliban, and there has been talk of a prisoner exchange to free him.

In Afghanistan, the fighting has continued in some places through the winter, and the start of the main spring fighting season is just weeks away.

“We are stuck here, trying to work out how to take it forward,” said a senior Western official in Kabul, discussing the talks process. But even Western diplomats hold different views on how best to advance, depending on whether they are based in Kabul or Islamabad, reflecting the different outlooks in two capitals that are barely an hour apart by airplane.

As the snows begin to melt in the high passes between Pakistan and Afghanistan, senior Afghan officials say they will be watching the Taliban’s moves closely to see if attacks this year slow down, remain the same or accelerate. In the absence of more concrete progress, that means that the pace of peace will, at least for now, most likely be determined by the forces of the war.

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