Afghanistan: USA in Haste to Wind Down Its Longest War

By IndepthAfrica
In Andrei AKULOV
Feb 13th, 2012
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Andrei AKULOV

US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said he hoped U.S. troops in Afghanistan would be able to move into a training and support role during the second half of next year. The U.S. proposal to stop combat operations in Afghanistan by the middle of 2013 came as a surprise to everyone including NATO allies. Germany, Britain and other NATO members complained they had been blindsided by US Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, who described the U.S. plan to reporters before the NATO defense chiefs meeting in Brussels started. The U.S. plan to pull out of Afghanistan earlier than planned (2014) would make it harder politically for European alliance members to keep their own troops there.

NATO officials initially had trouble explaining what the change would mean in practice. U.S. officials insisted that the transfer of duties to the Afghans did not mean the United States would cease combat operations entirely. Secretary Panetta offered reassurances that U.S. forces would still engage in combat even after the Afghan army takes the lead role next year. «Everyone understands that there’s going to be a transition here», Panetta said after a day of meetings at NATO headquarters. «The Afghans will be in the lead, and we will continue to provide support.» he explained. U.S. forces would train and advise Afghan units, conduct special-operations raids and be available to assist other troops in emergencies. They would only «engage in combat operations as necessary,» The «combat support» role would include the use of strike aircraft, surveillance aerial vehicles, attack helicopters, medical evacuation and special forces rather than more vulnerable regular infantry units.

Karzai’s fragile government expressed shock at Panetta’s remarks. In Kabul, a senior Afghan security official said his government had not been informed of Panetta’s announcement and said it «throws out the whole transition plan.» NATO’s previous plan was to hand full security responsibility to the Afghans at the end of 2014, and while some changes had been expected during a gradual transition. Now Afghanistan’s fledgling military and police forces will likely have to take on more responsibility more quickly than had been expected..

More than a dozen members of the 49-country international coalition in Afghanistan are preparing to bring many or all of their soldiers home next year. The foreign military presence is expected to shrink by around 40,000 troops by the end of 2012. The United States will pull out approximately 29,000 troops, reducing the number from 97,000 to around 68,000. Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Poland, Denmark, New Zealand, Slovenia, Hungary, Finland and Italy will all withdraw thousands more.

There is no doubt now the Afghanistan transition plan will top the NATO’s agenda at the May summit in Chicago

CONTRIBUTORES TO FOLLOW USA

A sense of mission fatigue has been growing among some European contributors to the 10-year allied intervention in Afghanistan.

The UK says it is likely to begin withdrawing a substantial number of troops from Afghanistan by spring 2013 as the US begins to wind down its presence in the country. Britain’s presence will reduce by 500 troops to 9,000 by the end of this year but in March 2013 it is likely to be reduced by several thousand, defense sources said. Previous British planning had assumed a «waterfall» timetable with troop numbers remaining near current levels until late 2014 then falling sharply.

French President Sarkozy has also announced faster withdrawal for France, the fourth-largest contributor of troops in Afghanistan – marking a distinct break from previous plans to adhere to the US goal of withdrawing combat forces by the end of 2014. The decision came a week after four unarmed French troops were killed by an Afghan soldier described as a Taliban infiltrator. France’s announcement could step up pressure in other European governments like Italy, and Germany, which also have important roles in Afghanistan. But the leaders of those European nations don’t face elections anytime soon. President Sarkozy does.

Defence Minister of Australia Stephen Smith, invited to Brussels for a NATO summit, conceded Australian forces could also begin drawing down in late 2013, provided security in Oruzgan province had been successfully transferred to Afghan control.

BRIEF SITUATION REVIEW

To most observers, the situation in Afghanistan is almost hopeless. Even President Hamid Karzai himself stated as much and added that widespread corruption, narco-dollars, and criminality inhibit the development of stable and legitimate institutions in his country. These sentiments and an acknowledgment of the renewed potency of the Taliban’s effectiveness were recently echoed by a secret U.S. military intelligence report entitled «State of the Taliban 2012,» dated January 6, 2012, that was leaked to the BBC and the Times of London. The study is based on 27,000 interrogations of 4,000 Taliban and al Qaeda prisoners conducted during 2011 at the joint CIA-U.S. military-run Parwan interrogation center at Bagram airfield north of Kabul. It says the Taliban is stronger that Western officials have acknowledged. If true, it will present even more challenges for the Afghan security forces and their international partners in 2013 and beyond. Key portions of the «State of the Taliban 2012» report directly contradict the more upbeat public assessments that have been coming from Washington and certain European capitals. For instance, the report says that the Taliban is winning the war in Afghanistan. According to it, «Taliban commanders, along with rank and file members, increasingly believe their control of Afghanistan is inevitable. Though the Taliban suffered severely in 2011, its strength, motivation, funding and tactical proficiency remains intact». There are frequent references concerning tacit cooperation between the Taliban insurgents and the Afghan government and military. Many of them believe that the Taliban will eventually prevail in the war as U.S. forces begin pulling out next year. According to the report, «Many Afghans are already bracing themselves for an eventual return of the Taliban… The Afghan government continues to declare its willingness to fight, yet many of its personnel have secretly reached out to insurgents, seeking long-term options in the event of a possible Taliban victory».

The same sentiments are echoed in the recent US Director of National Intelligence General Clapper’s report presented to US Congress in the beginning of February this year. The report says «We assess that the Taliban-led insurgency in Afghanistan has lost ground in some areas,» but later adds that these gains only took place in «areas where ISAF surge forces are concentrated,» that is in southwestern Afghanistan (Helmand and Kandahar Provinces). It says nothing about the security situation in the rest of the country. Director Clapper states that Afghan military and police forces are still dependant on support from U.S. and NATO forces, tacitly admitting that the Afghans forces are still incapable of standing on their own ten years after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan; and also admits that «corruption as well as poor leadership and management will threaten Afghan National Security Forces» operational effectiveness». Clapper’s statement did not address the publicly-reported sharp disagreements between the U.S. intelligence community and the Pentagon over whether any progress is being achieved in Afghanistan at all. He also failed to mention that the Taliban made battlefield gains in northern and eastern Afghanistan in 2011. And there was no mention of rationale for the negotiations now taking place between the U.S. and our NATO allies with the Taliban. The report carefully evaded this issue.

During the February NATO defense chiefs meeting US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the progress in the areas south of Kabul (Ghazni, Logar, Wardak, Paktia, Paktika, and Khost provinces) remains inadequate. The Haqqani Network that operates there has been damaged but not defeated. It retains important safe havens even in the Kabul vicinity.

The Haqqani Network is the most dangerous enemy facing the U.S. in Afghanistan today. It has deepened his organization’s ties to the most militant terrorist groups in Pakistan whose aims are regional and global. If the U.S. withdraws from Afghanistan while the Haqqanis still have such safe havens, the mission President Obama set himself of disrupting and defeating al Qaeda in Afghanistan and creating conditions that will prevent it from returning will have failed.

This task cannot be left to the Afghan security forces. It requires precise intelligence, precision strike capability, close air support, specially trained personnel, sophisticated communications. Leaving it to the Afghans to clear safe havens south of Kabul is doomed to failure.

MAJOR RESULTS

There are five fortified areas or Main Operating Bases according to NATO classification. The NATO’s strength is 150000 servicemen (the US contingent is about 100000 strong). There are also 70000 strong US private military contractors. They cannot win fighting the 27000 strong Taliban.

There is an aspect often ignored or not given proper attention to by the Western media. According to Viktor Ivanov, director of the Russian Federal Service for Control of Drugs and Psychotropic Substances more than 90 per cent of the world’s heroin originates in Afghanistan. 40% of it goes to Russia. Actually Russia faces a wide scale aggression. UN statistics say about a million people in Europe (Russia included) were dead because of drugs during the first 19 years since 2001.

There are numerous instances the NATO military cause indignation among local population. Just a few days ago all major world TV channels and Internet news outlets presented a video showing US military humiliating corpses of dead Taliban militants. Just another example of disgraceful actions tilting public opinion against US and NATO not in Afghanistan only but throughout the whole world.

The NATO death toll is about 4500 (private contractors included), the Taliban – dozens of thousand. That means the Taliban constantly gets reinforcements from population to make up for losses. The NATO war expenditure (US mainly) is about $500 billion.

Roughly 34 thousand civilians lost their lives in Afghanistan as a result of «mistakes» committed by NATO servicemen. On February 4, 2012 a new UN report saw light saying the number of civilians killed and injured in the Afghan conflict has risen for the fifth year in a row. The 2011 Annual Report on Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict said civilian deaths from air strikes in support of the Afghan government rose in 2011. «Afghan children, women and men continue to be killed in this war in ever-increasing numbers», said Jan Kubis, UN Special Representative for Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. «Among the tactics of pro-government forces, aerial attacks caused the greatest number of Afghan civilian deaths in 2011 attributed to these forces.» The report said 187 civilian deaths were attributed to air attacks, an increase of 9% over 2010. Attacks by unmanned US drone aircraft are regularly carried out against Taliban targets in Afghanistan and across the border in Pakistan. The Syrian government is blamed for killing civilians while fighting opposition. According to NATO officials President Assad is among tyrants and killers suppressing his own people. The US and EU go on toughening sanctions, a military solution is on the table. What about the US and NATO servicemen killing Afghan civilians? Somehow there are no calls for establishing «no fly zones» over the US or NATO airspace, for instance. Appears to be the same old story about double standards practiced by the USA and its NATO allies so often.

CONCLUSIONS AND PROSPECTS

The decision to expedite the withdrawal is to certainly boost President Obama’s odds at the coming elections. Still about 60 thousand «instructors» are going to stay in the country. The difference between combat itself and combat assistance is murky.

In fact Panetta didn’t say something brand new. It’s just puling out a year earlier than planned but the «non combat» military presence if going to be preserved. The new schedule makes it possible for President Obama to say he not only has pulled out of Iraq but has already started curtailing presence in Afghanistan.

The Taliban taking part in the government or coming to power is almost a certain thing because of inability of NATO to create robust Afghan military or police force as well as civilian structures.

As is known the minorities: the Tajiks, the Uzbeks and the Hazara – are all anti Taliban, so the violence outbreak, perhaps even a civil war, is a great possibility.

The Taliban may influence events in nuclear Pakistan, AFPAC becoming safe haven of terrorists with nuclear weapons deployed on its soil. It’s a threat for everyone. The cooperation between NATO and the Collective Security Treaty Organization is the next logical step offered many times by Moscow and the organization’s leadership stubbornly declined by the USA.

The popularity of the Taliban is growing because first of all of the huge rate of unemployment, drugs, poverty, corruption, that all of course plays into the hands of the Taliban. When they were in power the situation was more stable. So Afghanistan now needs huge economic programs implemented with the help of the international community and under its control, because of high level of corruption. The CSTO and NATO joining together in economic projects would be a logical step for everybody’s benefit. There is no stability without economy to prop it up. But NATO rejects the very idea of dealing with the CSTO, be it security or economy. Strange behavior for someone who has suffered a defeat with no realistic arrangement in sight.

The United States has two primary national interests in this conflict: that Afghanistan never again becomes a haven for terrorism against the United States, and that chaos in Afghanistan would not destabilize its neighbors, especially Pakistan. A Taliban restoration could restore to al-Qaeda a sanctuary for attacking the United States. Anyway the USA gone Afghanistan would almost certainly provide Pashtun militants and their allies in Pakistan a massive launching pad for efforts to destabilize the regime in Islamabad. None of the goals mentioned above are achieved. Thus the operation is by and large a total failure. Back in the 1960s the times were rough for the USA in Vietnam. Senator Aiken gave advice to President Lyndon Johnson – declare victory and leave. Looks like the advice is to be forever relevant.

 

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