Yesterday, CNN.com published “Afghan War Is Not Over Yet,” by Stephen Tankel, an assistant professor at American University, a non-resident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and the author of Storming the World Stage: The Story of Lashkar-e-Taiba. In this article, Tankel takes a detailed look at the unsettled political situation in Central Asia after President Obama’s announcement of the “irreversible” plan to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan. Tankel sees a great deal of uncertainty that must be resolved and a wide variety of challenges that must be be met before any successful withdrawal can be effected.
He first questions the efficacy of the Afghan National Army in maintaining stability:
The Afghan National Army is already taking the lead in regions with roughly 75% of the population, with U.S. and other NATO troops acting as support. However, this does not include the most contested areas in the south and east, where Afghan forces are slated to assume responsibility by next summer. Serious doubts persist about their readiness to do so.
Despite significant training efforts, the army’s level of competence remains in question. It lacks many of the support functions needed for war fighting. The army will remain dependent on international forces for these capabilities and on the international community for financial assistance, expected to cost at least $4 billion a year.
Complicating matters even more, the Afghan army is overwhelmingly non-Pashtun, which makes operating in the overwhelmingly Pashtun south and east, where the Taliban-led insurgency is strongest, all the more challenging. The army’s ethnic composition and that of the Karzai government are also among Pakistan’s chief concerns.
Pakistan’s concerns and policies are a cause for worry in Tankel’s view:
Yet Pakistan’s fears have led it to pursue a myopic policy that could contribute to this very outcome. It supports the Taliban, the Haqqani network and other assorted proxies in Afghanistan both as a hedging strategy and with the aim of positioning itself as the ultimate arbiter of any resolution. This has encouraged hedging among other regional actors and led to Pakistan’s isolation.
Though the Pakistani security establishment supports an Afghan-led reconciliation with the Taliban, it seeks significant control over that process. This is unacceptable to Kabul, Washington and, ironically, the Taliban. They all want to minimize Pakistan’s role.
These thorny issues have been extant for quite some time, but no clear path to resolving them has been proposed, and it doesn’t appear any significant progress was made in Chicago.
Tankel closes his article with a rather ominous warning for those assuming that the US withdrawal will lead to the end of the war in Afghanistan:
The summit in Chicago was an important turning point. U.S. forces cannot remain in Afghanistan at present levels indefinitely, not least because there is no purely military solution to these problems. But it’s clear that a timeline for the transition to a new role for the U.S. and NATO allies in Afghanistan does not mean the war is over.