Page 1 of 2 Balkanization of Afghanistan beckons
By Derek Henry Flood
In his February 12 State of the Union address, President Barack Obama outlined the beginning of the end of American participation in Afghanistan's now decades long civil war. The US would endure a phased troop withdrawal meant to halve the presence of American soldiers within a year's time, reducing the present force of approximately 66,000 by 34,000.
The remainder are then theoretically going to make a rather hasty retreat between October 2014 and the start of 2015 with a possible residual force of several thousand soldiers staying on in a training and support capacity.
The precise number of troops, if there are to be any at all, will depend on the outcome of negotiations between Washington and
Kabul. Obama did not provide any spoiler alerts in his annual speech most likely because timetables and logistics with America's Afghan counterparts simply have yet to be hammered out.
The message, however, was very clear: whether Afghanistan is ready or not, America's oversized military boot print in that country is already dissipating.
On February 10, a transfer of command took place in Kabul for the American-led NATO International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) troops waging a years-long fraught counterinsurgency campaign.
Marine General Joseph Dunford took over from his predecessor General John Allen. Allen, still nominated for the top NATO post of Supreme Allied Commander in Europe (SACEUR), played a tangential part in a petty sex scandal that felled the career of now former CIA Director David Petraeus last fall.
Though the Obama administration has yet to formally withdraw Allen's SACEUR nomination publicly, though Allen himself has opted out from the nomination process to avoid undue speculation regarding his role, however minimal, in the scandal that brought down his comrade Petraeus.
An ever quixotic President Karzai refused to dignify the locked down handover ceremony with his presence despite a recent pledge to continue efforts to wind down the war by negotiating a vaguely outlined peace accord with the Afghan Taliban. The Presidential Palace dispatched the Afghan defense minister and national security chief in lieu of his eminence.
During General Dunford's first full day on duty, the United States military began experimentally shipping a small quantity of voluminous metal containers stocked with war materiel through the contentious border gate at Torkham, signaling that the United States was beginning its drawdown under the stewardship of a man who Washington somewhat optimistically states will be its last major theater commander in Kabul.
The equipment will eventually make the long trek to Karachi's port facilities on the Arabian Sea from where it can be shipped onward to return to American military supply depots.
Though Afghanistan borders a total of six countries, in the eyes of the major Western players in the Afghan war, Pakistan is the sole meaningful border state. Sharing the 2,640-kilometer-long Durand Line (the de facto border), with its deep ties to the Taliban, Pakistan is deemed the state whose cooperation and influence is indispensable to ease the much-desired exit of virtually all NATO troops by the end of 2014.
Without access to the Pakistani trucking network's perilous land routes leading down to Karachi, NATO is forced to rely on the much more costly, incredibly laborious Northern Distribution Network (NDN) in order to send the equipment as far away as cold-water ports on the Baltic Sea.
After the deaths of 24 Pakistani soldiers in a coalition strike in November 2011, Islamabad enacted a seven month long blockade of NATO gear transiting Pakistani territory.
This tragic incident gave NATO logisticians planning their withdrawal pause for thought with their temporary total reliance on the NDN in the face of Pakistani anger. Pakistani drivers may face death at the hands of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and NATO vehicles may be destroyed in the process, but the Pakistani transit corridor is simply considered far more efficient by the West.
The withdrawal of the Americans en masse from Afghanistan coincides with the end of President Hamid Kazai's wobbly reign over the country since he was installed as interim ruler in December 2001 and then elected twice in a series of terribly flawed electoral processes in 2004 and 2009.
Karzai has vowed to step down as Afghanistan's sole post-Taliban head of state but thus far he has no clear successor. The next presidential ballot is slated for April 2014 but prominent Afghan leaders are already maneuvering. Afghanistan appears to be at the edge of a cliff. Washington and its ISAF partners have been focused on the readiness of the Afghan National Army (ANA) and limiting the notorious corruption plaguing the Afghan National Police (ANP).
The question that must be asked at this time though is whether the men in these organizations can and will remain loyal to a centralized state in Kabul if it appears Afghanistan is reverting to its pre-9/11 self.
The wishful metrics of progress for Afghan security forces may be of little utility if powerful regional leaders begin openly reasserting themselves should the Taliban come back into measurable power in Nimruz, Helmand, Kandahar, Zabul, Paktia, Paktika, Khost, Nangarhar provinces.
If Taliban fighters then begin moving into vulnerable provinces like Herat, encircling the heavily Shi'ite Hazarajat region and applying military pressure in contested areas of northern Afghanistan's southern tier, as they did in the 1990s, Afghanistan will either Balkanize itself into distinct warlord-led enclaves or enter into civil war without the advantage of Western air support.
Mohammed Sardar Saeedi, a northern regional leader of the ethnic-Hazara, Shia faction Hezb-i-Wahdat photographed at his home in Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan on April 4, 2008. Sardar is a key deputy of Hezb-i-Wahdat chief Mohammed Mohaqiq who fought bitterly against the Sunni Taliban assaults on northern Afghanistan in 1997 and 1998. Sardar told Asia Times Online that he led his men against the Taliban again in 2001 after 9/11. Hezb-i-Wahdat leaders like Saeedi have developed strong links with Iran over the years and detest the anti-Shi'ite sectarianism of the Taliban. Credit: Derek Henry Flood
It was stipulated in the Bonn Agreement of December 2001 that Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration (DDR) initiatives would do away with the warlord armies while bringing former combatants into interim security forces which would later become the ANA and ANP. Whether Afghanistan will see a total unraveling of DDR efforts after 2014 will depend on whether the overly centralized government in Kabul can maintain a degree of control over the regions enmeshed with a high degree of warlord culture.
When United States forces began attacking Taliban and al-Qaeda positions in October 2001, the Americans - and later NATO - were essentially entering in an alliance with the losing side in a civil war. With a mix of overwhelming air power, suitcases full of cash handed over to anti-Taliban commanders popularly referred to as "warlords" in the press, and American Special Forces assisting ethnic-Tajik and Uzbek militias, the US reversed years of Taliban hard won military gains over the course of that fateful autumn.
Abdul Qadir Dostum, younger brother of the ethnic-Uzbek militia commander Abdul Rashid Dostum, pictured in the salon of his brother's lavish villa in Kabul's Shirpur district on August 16, 2009 after Abdul Rashid returned from a brief exile in Ankara, Turkey. Abdul Qadir was reportedly seriously injured when a Taliban suicide bomber attempted to assassinate Abdul Rashid in January 2005. It is highly unlike the powerful Dostum brothers would quietly accept some form of coalition government that folded in their Taliban foes. Credit: Derek Henry Flood
Despite the George W Bush administration's stated desire to put an end to the "cruise missile diplomacy" emblematic of the Clinton era, there were very few American "boots on the ground" during the volatile weeks that the Taliban regime crumbled and melted away. The first Americans in Afghanistan were intelligence officers liaising with local Afghan strongmen hostile to the Taliban followed by small numbers of elite Special Forces detachments.
Central Intelligence Agency officers were helping to reinvigorate the stagnant fiefdoms of anti-Taliban military leaders while small detachments of the US Army's 5th Special Forces Group Operational Detachment Alpha units (ODA) operating out of Uzbekistan's Karshi-Khanabad airbase were quietly inserted by the dozen under the cover of darkness to assist northern Afghan power brokers eager to reclaim territory lost to the Taliban in previous retreats or defeats.
Groupings such as ODA 595 and 525 famously fought alongside General Abdul Rashid Dostum's Junbesh-i-Milli fighters and the mostly ethnic-Tajik forces under the command of Mohammed Atta Noor from Jamiat-i-Islami to eject the Taliban from Mazar-i-Sharif and other key northern cities facing Central Asia's soft underbelly.
The wrinkle in this strategy was that Langley and the Pentagon were partnering with men who were not only enemies of the Taliban but loathed by Pakistan's military and intelligence establishment.
This initial pairing of American Special Forces with Dostum, Atta, Mohaqiq, and others was deeply problematic from the start not only because of the less than stellar human rights record attributed to indigenous commanders documented by groups like Human Rights Watch dating back to the internecine fighting of the 1990s but because these men were sworn enemies of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) directorate in headquartered in Islamabad's Aabpara area.
Northern warlords - each with their own unique set of interests backed by constellation of patrons - relied on ties with states like Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Iran, India, Turkey, and Russia for diplomatic succor (semi-hermetic Turkmenistan officially maintains a policy of "neutrality" in the region), refuge, and backing.
This put the individual leaders of the former United Islamic Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan, known as the United Front for short, in a differing political and economic realm than the bulk of their Pashtun countrymen in the south and east in Pakistan's historic zone of influence.
The heavily personality driven parties of the country's north, northeast, west and center, with their often bellicose view of the Taliban, may greatly complicate both Pakistan's and the United States' schemes for a bloodless transition to a post-NATO, post-Karzai Afghanistan.
This contentious history put the legacy leaders of the United Front - long referred to in press accounts somewhat inarticulately as the "Northern Alliance" - in direct confrontation with Islamabad's interests on the Afghan battlefield. From late 2001 until now, the United States has tried to strike an impossible balance between the quarrelsome ethnic interest groups inside Afghanistan and its inherently frustrating alliance with the Pakistani security state and Islamabad's often wildly divergent localized regional strategic objectives.
It was ascribed to the point of cliche that regularly cited the need for a friendly regime in Afghanistan in order to provide the Pakistani state with "strategic depth" in its geopolitical struggle with India that centered on ownership of Kashmir dating back to the partition of the British Raj in 1947.
Pakistan's ambassador to the US, Sherry Rehman, insisted in mid-summer 2012 that Islamabad was already moving away from its failed strategic depth policy vis-a-vis Afghanistan.
Rehman's comments were immediately backed up by the US Ambassador to Pakistan Richard Olson, who cited Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar's apparent willingness to abandon Pakistan's strategic depth doctrine. Pakistani daily Dawn reported last March FM Khar stating that Pakistan was firmly abandoning its legacy Afghanistan policy which she referred to as "historical baggage" that represented a "hangover " from an earlier era that was no longer relevant.
While Pakistan's Taliban policy in Afghanistan caused Delhi to fret, outright frightened the authoritarian regimes in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan who feared for the creeping radicalization of their fragile societies, as well as nearly bringing Tehran to the brink of war with Islamabad's proxies after the execution of Iranian diplomats in Mazar-i-Sharif in 1998, Islamabad's fostering of the Afghan Taliban did the most damage within Pakistan.
For the Taliban are not merely an autochthonous Afghan movement, but one raised and shaped by activist Pakistani military officials influential during Benazir Bhutto's second prime ministership in the 1990s.
Rather than the Taliban becoming the jurists of an efficient client state, its pathetic governing period in Afghanistan led to increased destabilization deeply affecting Pakistan for years to come. The sponsoring of Mullah Omar's regime ultimately resulted in drawing in the 100,000 ISAF troops currently present on Afghan soil - an anathema to many Afghans - and the Talibanization of vulnerable sectors of Pakistani society.
The rise of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in 2007 has had severe consequences for Pakistan's entrenched political order. From the assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto in late 2007 to the tacit though denied complicity of ever increasing, deadly drone warfare in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), the physical destruction of the old militant nexus in Afghanistan has only metastasized militancy at the juncture of South and Central Asia over the long term.
Along with the troubles created by the TTP in the FATA and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province more broadly, Pakistanis - the Hazara minority in Balochistan in particular - are suffering increasingly under the savagery of virulently anti-Shi'ite groups like Lashkar-i-Jhangvi, Sipah-i-Sahaba Pakistan and Jaish-i-Muhammed, now known collectively as the "Punjabi Taliban".
On January 14, the state-run Qatar News Agency disseminated a statement from the Qatari Foreign Ministry that it was officially sanctioning the opening of some kind of liaison office for the Afghan Taliban at the behest of the White House and Kabul. The Peninsula, a Qatari English-language daily, categorizes the Taliban vaguely as a "movement" rather than the Pentagon and NATO preferred term of an "insurgency". Labeling the Taliban as a movement implies the grouping had concrete, terrestrial political goals unlike the al-Qaeda men it once harbored from 1996-2001.
The United States is eager to finally evolve from a poorly framed policy goal made by George W Bush on the evening of September 11, 2001 that told a global audience: "We will make no distinction between those who committed these acts and those who harbor them."
Thus well before American jets dropped their first ordinance on Afghan soil on October 7, 2001, the Bush administration conflated the Taliban which sought international recognition as Afghanistan's legitimate rulers with the transnational al-Qaeda whose aim was to sow terror among apostate government both near and far.