Afghanistan Post-2014. by Peter Burton
2014 will mark the withdrawal of the majority of US and NATO forces out of Afghanistan, signifying the end of the Western-led combat mission. So will commence the new stage of Afghan independence, one in which it must fend for itself militarily. Under current circumstances, this is a distressing prospect not only for Afghans, but for all citizens of the world.
The removal of the Taliban regime was swift and well executed, but plans for reconstruction and an eventual exit strategy were lacking. Afghanistan has constantly been under some form of conflict since…well, its creation. The removal of the Taliban from Kabul was easy enough, and for the time being US/NATO forces deter any major insurgent attacks on the city. But there is something much more unsettling in the foundations of Afghan society which may prove harder to solve than the resurgence of the Taliban. The divisions in society which are the fundamental cause of instability in the nation have not gone away. In fact, the US approach of “make everybody happy” may have made matters worse, as the Afghan government is now fragmented along ethnic lines.
The fighting between the majority Pashtuns and the minority Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras was what enabled the Taliban to so easily take control (that and support of the Pakistan government, of course). These underlying conflicts have not disappeared, and the leaders of these factional groups are still around, with most of them have been given prestigious political positions by the US in efforts to woo them out of violence.
This divide runs much deeper and resonates more strongly with Afghans than their anti-Taliban sentiments. Whereas the majority Pashtuns might be convinced to disown the Taliban (the Taliban being of Pashtun origin), most Afghans would not so easily forget the violent fighting that went on between the different ethnic groups before the Taliban created some measure of order in 1996.
Once the US withdraws its final combat forces, the Afghan army will bear the grunt of protecting the inevitable rise in attacks on current government controlled areas. In already stretched conditions, the Afghan army will have to face a more aggressive and better trained insurgency. Ultimately, Afghanistan will rely solely on the success of its own army to determine the future security the nation. This is worrying, as the army has been built from scratch in the past decade and still has minimal experience in leading operations in its own country. US advisers praise the commanding ranks of the Afghan forces, but the concern lies with the soldiers. Stretched thinly and trained in a haphazard manner, the prospect of fighting back a well trained and purpose-driven insurgency is not only troubling, but provides a huge threat to the future of Afghanistan.
As a military solution to the insurgency has been abandoned with the withdrawing of US/NATO troops, this only leaves a political cooperation between the Afghan government and the Taliban to stop the inevitable rise in attacks. Although this may be supported by a minority of Pashtuns, it is universally condemned by the rest of the Afghan minorities, which make up around 45% of the population. Diplomacy between the two would cause a rift in government and be a possible catalyst of civil war.
The 2014 extraction deadline illustrates the paradox that is the Afghan reconstruction mission. If the US leave too early and with too few forces in place to protect Afghan security, the reconstruction process is in jeopardy. But if the US stay and commit hundreds of billions of dollars, they are putting their own security at risk. In addition to this, there is an ever-looming message that the Taliban don’t mind broadcasting; they can wait until the US leave to act. So really, the US is damned if it does and damned if it doesn’t. With no assurance of success and the massive cost of reconstruction, staying in Afghanistan indefinitely is not a practicality. This is the premise upon which the Americans are pulling out, and at this stage of the campaign, who can blame them? No one was ever able to conquer Afghanistan fully, so was it naive to hope for a conflict-free Afghanistan? For the foreseeable future, the problems that have plagued the nation will certainly not disappear and will be exacerbated by the withdrawal of US forces.