The long awaited review of U.S. and NATO strategy in Afghanistan was completed by the Obama administration in December 2010. The publicly released version of the report claimed major gains against the Al Qaeda and the Taliban, particularly in the core areas under their control for long including the Helmand and Kandahar provinces. However, the report acknowledged that the gains were fragile and could be undone unless the Pakistan army acted against the Taliban operating from safe havens in the NWFP and FATA with equal vigour.
The broad goal of the U.S.-NATO-ISAF war strategy in Afghanistan is to ensure that Afghanistan acquires the stability that is necessary to be able to control its territory so that the Taliban and Al Qaeda are prevented from operating successfully from its soil against the U.S. and its allies, and also to reduce the risk of a return to civil war. The U.S. plans to transfer all combat responsibilities to the Afghan security forces by 2014. President Obama cannot afford to lose a war on his watch and yet hope to win re-election in 2012. The exit strategy will be based on a phased drawdown with not more than 10,000 troops being withdrawn each year till an “equilibrium that is manageable” is achieved. The U.S. and NATO troops are still thin on the ground while the Taliban has shown a marked degree of resurgence.
Afghanistan lies on the strategic crossroads between South Asia and Iran, West Asia, the Caucasus and the Central Asian Republics. Its regional neighbours have important geo-political and energy security interests in the area. Neighbours like India have invested over US$ 1 billion and immense time and effort in the post-2001 reconstruction of Afghanistan, but have been completely marginalised in U.S.-NATO-ISAF discussions for the resolution of the ongoing conflict.
The foremost concern of Afghanistan’s regional neighbours is that the coalition forces will begin their deadline-mandated exit before putting in place a strong alternative force to continue their work. A major apprehension is that the Taliban will defeat the weak and poorly trained Afghan National Army, take over Kabul, extend their reach to the countryside in due course and once again begin to practice their peculiar brand of Jihad and cultural bigotry. Both Iran and China are wary of the return of Wahabi Islam to Afghanistan.
Afghanistan’s regional neighbours, including the CARs, China, India, Iran, Pakistan and Russia, must come together to seek a solution to the conflict. This would involve putting together a regional force, preferably under a UN flag, to provide a stable environment for governance and development till the Afghan National Army can take over. The diplomatic aim should be to work towards a stable Afghan state, which is governed by a dispensation that is neutral between India and Pakistan. It is in the regional interest to support the continued operational commitment of U.S.-NATO-ISAF forces beyond July 2011 till the situation comes under control and security can be handed over to the Afghan National Army.
(Gurmeet Kanwal is Director, Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi.)