Many Afghans are nervous about U.S.-Taliban talks; Pakistan, India, Russia and China jockey for position.
The oldest cliche in Afghanistan is to describe the country in terms of the “Great Game,” the 19th-century geostrategic chessboard of British colonists, Afghan kings and Russian tsars.
Yet there is little doubt that, with the start of a phased American troop withdrawal, the bugle has been sounded for a fresh bout of political and military scrambling to shape the destiny of a perilously fragile nation.
In the short term, last night's (June 22) announcement from Washington will have a greater impact on U.S. politics than on Afghan security. Just 10 per cent of the American force is due to leave this year, leaving some 90,000 soldiers behind. It's easy to forget that only six years ago the U.S. contingent was just 12,000 strong.
But it does signal the starting point of Taliban peace talks. On Sunday, June 19, the outgoing U.S. Defence Secretary, Robert Gates, confirmed the Obama administration was engaged in “outreach” talks with Taliban members, the first U.S. acknowledgement of such contacts.
The political landscape is already changing. Once reviled figures, such as the former Taliban Minister Maulvi Qalamuddin, have been rehabilitated. So have another five Taliban figures appointed by President Hamid Karzai to a “high peace council” that will help negotiate with the insurgency.
Yet this process leaves many Afghans queasy and apprehensive. Yesterday, Thomas Ruttig, an analyst with the Afghanistan Analysts Network, visited Kabul University to talk to students. “They were really frightened the troops were leaving,” he said. “There's a lot of criticism of western forces, of course. But if push comes to shove, they're worried the Taliban will ultimately take over again.” Insecurity is fed by the lack of information about the insurgents' political demands. “We have to find out if they really want to talk, what they want and — the key question — whether they are ready to accept a pluralistic society,” said Ruttig.
In the meantime, the western goal is to “Afghanise” the security forces. It starts next month when North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) hands control of two small provinces and five urban centres, including most of Kabul, to the fledgling Afghan army.
The Afghans claim to be prepared. The army will have more than 170,000 troops by October and an arsenal of western-supplied weapons, according to the defence ministry. But questions remain about the ability of Afghan soldiers to use their weapons against a formidable guerrilla force.
The violence graph is heading in the wrong direction. Last May was the deadliest month for Afghan civilians since the UN started tracking deaths in 2007, with the Taliban responsible for the majority of the 368 deaths.
Civilian security forces are also weak. The western city of Herat, for example, with 7,50,000 people, has just 180 police. Residents say some are drug addicts, others irredeemably corrupt. Change is also looming in the aid business. A decade of western assistance has brought visible benefits to the streets of Kabul, where a small elite has prospered through a combination of legitimate business, political corruption and lucrative security contracts. Property prices have soared, streets been paved and electricity improved. But many ordinary Afghans remain trapped deep in poverty. Now the troop drawdown will slow the flow of western money.
The Canadian government says it will halve development assistance as it withdraws most of its soldiers this year. The World Food Programme says it is slashing projects in half of the country.
The greatest changes will take place in 2014, when all U.S. and British combat troops are due to leave. The most pressing question now is what will take their place.
In recent months, President Karzai has become strongly critical of his western allies, recently engaging in a bitter public spat with the U.S. Ambassador. Pakistan, India, Russia and China, with one eye on a peace deal, are already jockeying for position. But it is still early days, and much remains unclear.
Meanwhile, western officials are facing up to the fact that, after a decade and billions in foreign aid, they made modest gains in a country where education remains poor, poverty is widespread and corruption is endemic. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2011