Afghanistan: the endgame drama

The military-political interplay in Afghanistan is taking an alarming new tilt for Washington. The possibility of a more precipitous exit is rising.
Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
1 March 2012

The interplay of military and political factors in the Afghanistan war is becoming more complex as the situation on the ground is entangled with electoral calculations in Washington.

The context of events in 2012 is the United States decision in 2010 to deploy an additional 30,000 troops into the country. But this "surge" was far from being part of an attempt to secure military victory, for by that stage Barack Obama's administration's recognised that the war was unwinnable in a conventional sense. The strategy was, rather, to establish a position of military superiority from which to negotiated as favourable a withdrawal as possible (see "Afghanistan: mapping the endgame", 16 June 2011).

This effectively acknowledged that the Taliban and other armed opposition groups would have a role in Afghanistan's future government - which the US hoped that this would be kept to a minimum.

In the event, the strategy failed; the Taliban remained undaunted; yet the plans for withdrawal continued and (in the case of Washington's Nato allies especially) even accelerated. As many as 32,000 American troops will have left by 30 September 2012, many more will follow in 2013, and their combat role will end in 2014. All 3,600 French troops will also leave by 2013, and the British withdrawal is also to be speeded up.

These dynamics were outlined in a recent column in this series, which, however, had a caveat: the continuation of the whole process was dependent on Barack Obama getting re-elected in November 2012. If he won, then troop levels would come down to a small fraction of current numbers, while the use of special forces and armed drones would remain the key tools in suppressing radical groups in Afghanistan. But "{if Mitt) Romney or another Republican takes the White House", the column said, "then the momentum would be very different - towards a substantial US involvement in south Asia for some years to come, with all the 'back to the future' implications that this would entail" (see "America after Iraq-Afghanistan", 9 February 2012).

The column acknowledged that several indicators - such as strikingly negative leaked Nato assessments, and a more recent report from a well-informed US army colonel - revealed the pressures on even the foreshortened withdrawal timescale of western forces (see Scott Shane, "In Afghan War, Officer Becomes a Whistle-Blower" New York Times, 6 February 2012). Now, further events in Afghanistan suggest that Washington's predicament there is becoming more urgent. A most telling indicator, as reported by experienced journalists there, is a change of mood in the country akin to the closing months of the Soviet occupation in the late 1980s.

The new violence

A series of events in recent days indicate an intensification of specifically anti-American assaults, though other foreign contingents are affected too. This began with an incident on 20 February 2012 when American troops at Bagram airbase disposed of old copies of the Qur'an by throwing them into a pit of burning rubbish, a widely publicised act that provoked general anger and many instances of violence (see Jim Lobe, "U.S. Growing Pessimism on Afghanistan After Quran Burning", TerraViva/IPS, 1 March 2012). It also led President Obama to make a rare apology to his Afghan counterpart, Hamid Karzai.

The numerous attacks on American targets following the incident include one on 25 February within the supposedly secure Afghan interior ministry in Kabul which killed two senior officers, and another on 1 March on an outpost in Taliban leader Mullah Omar's home village in which two soldiers died (bringing the US deaths to six). A shift is measured in one report from "(what) only weeks ago was a current of anti-Americanism" to now "a palpable fury" (see Matthew Rosenberg & Thom Shanker, "New violence complicates pullout from Afghanistan", New York Times, 28 February 2012).

The determined efforts by Nato to cut opium production, in an effort to halt an important revenue-source of paramilitary groups, has also generated a backlash. In October 2011, a United Nations report found that the area under opium-poppy cultivation had increased by 7% in 2011, a continuation of the upward trend in 2010 (see Jack Healy, "Afghanistan Sees Increase in Poppy Cultivation", New York Times, 11 October 2011). This was accompanied by an ominous increase in desertions from the Afghan army (see Joshua Partlow, "More Afghan soldiers deserting the army, NATO statistics show", Washington Post, 2 September 2011) and repeated attacks by serving Afghan soldiers on their erstwhile Nato allies (see Anup Kaphle, "NATO troops killed by Afghan security forces: Timeline of rogue attacks", Washington Post, 1 March 2012).

These developments so far are making little impact on the US campaign trail, which is at present dominated by internal Republican Party rivalries. True, the favourite-by-default Mitt Romney has called Obama's Afghan wind-down plan an "extraordinary admission of failure" (see Mark Landler, "Violence in Afghanistan Causes Ripples on Campaign Trail", New York Times, 27 February 2012); but the general mood of war-weariness in the US, affecting attitudes to Iraq as well as Afghanistan, mean that foreign-policy issues - even the risk of war with Iran - are still on the side-stage (see "The war on Iran: Americans in focus", 23 February 2012).

The combination of escalating violence in Afghanistan and political uncertainty in the US could yet have unexpected results. In this fluid context, much will depend on the degree to which one particular trend comes to dominate the closing stages of the decade-long war.

The corruption factor

Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) is among the most respected security analysts in Washington. This week he released an uncompromising commentary - Afghanistan: The Death of a Strategy (27 February 2012) - which focused on the Afghan government's endemic corruption and maladministration, as well as on the level of anti-Americanism and violence in the country.

The phenomenon of corruption is now a much greater problem than is commonly realised. It is being given a substantial boost by the suspicion among Afghanistan's elites that the US will indeed give up and move towards a more precipitous exit. Under such circumstances many government officials and senior police and army officers, as well as politicians, will be hugely tempted to maximise their "take" while they can (to store it in Pakistan, the Emirates, or even further afield). The faster the US departure, the greater the likely Taliban influence in post-occupation Afghanistan and the bleaker their own prospects - or so they calculate.

In sum, Afghanistan may now be entering a period of irreversible and accelerating change, a change that will by the time of the US presidential election amount to "a fact on the ground". Even a month ago, it would have been reasonable to predict a difference between an Obama second term and a Romney first term. The fact that that is no longer the case is a political measure of the scale of what has happened in these short weeks.

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