Fear Sunday's carnage may become daily occurrence if U.S. reduces its troop presence

Last week, President Vladimir Putin stunned Russia's Parliament with these words for the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) soldiers his own army is trained to fight: “God bless them,” he said.

“We understand what is happening in Afghanistan — right?” he asked legislators. “We are interested in things there being under control, right? And we do not want our soldiers to fight on the Tajik-Afghan border, right?” “It is in our national interests to help maintain stability in Afghanistan,” he continued. “Well, NATO and the Western community are present there. Let them do their work.”

For weeks before Sunday's coordinated Taliban terror strikes, Asia's great powers had been anxiously contemplating the prospect of an Afghanistan without America. In 2014, the United States will reduce its troop presence in Afghanistan to 20,000 or less — and, given the unclear road map to the future, many Asian leaders fear Sunday's carnage might become a daily occurrence.

Last month — Indian diplomatic sources have told The Hindu — Chinese and Russian diplomats at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) meeting in Beijing privately said they would welcome a long-term NATO troop presence. Iran and Pakistan — like India, observer-members of the SCO — are bitterly opposed to the prospect. However, NATO has the backing of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, all of which fear Afghanistan could become a haven for Islamist terror groups and heroin-trafficking gangs.

No clear road map for regional support to Afghanistan has manifested itself — but Russia is considering allowing NATO a logistical base at Ulyanovsk — perhaps ironically, the birthplace of revolutionary leader Vladimir Illych Lenin.

Local support

No one knows for certain, though, just what kinds of regional support will in fact be needed. Later this summer, at the upcoming NATO summit in Chicago, President Hamid Karzai, is expected to sign on to a strategic partnership agreement. India committed, last year, to train Afghanistan's security forces through a similar agreement — becoming the first country Mr. Karzai chose to partner with. Donor-states will also be meeting in Tokyo, to lay out a financial blueprint for Afghanistan's aid-dependent government

In a best-case scenario, these partnerships will prove enough to hold the Afghan state together after 2014.

Afghanistan's much-reviled security forces demonstrated considerable skill on Sund, killed 36 jihadists while losing eight police, army and intelligence personnel — and this without allowing a single target to be overwhelmed by the attackers. The country's troops have also held the ground in troubled pockets of Herat, where NATO troops withdrew last year; an imminent sweep into Ghazni, military strategists say, could yield similar gains. Local political deals, the government said, have led to at least 4,000 insurgents surrendering — and another 1,000-odd returning home to their villages.

Fragile gains

It is also clear, though, that these gains are fragile. Afghanistan's security force strength — including its police — will be cut from 3,50,000 to 2,30,000. The army itself will be slashed from 2,40,000 now to 1,91,000. There is still no clear road map for how the army will develop critical infrastructure to replace what NATO now offers. The army is short of everything from close air-support capabilities to heavy engineering infrastructure, and even workshops to maintain its jeeps.

Economic challenges will also stare Afghanistan in the face come 2014. NATO expenditure is now estimated to account for 80% of Afghanistan's gross domestic product, and no one knows just how this shortfall will be met.

“The troop cuts alone,” says analyst Omar Sharifi, “could have a crippling impact. There will suddenly be over a 1,00,000 men on the streets, with no skills other than fighting.”

Karzai looks to Pak.

Mr. Karzai, sources close to the President have said, is convinced Pakistan will hold the keys to the future after 2014 — but there are few signs it is willing to use them to open the door to peace. The Taliban's core leadership is based in Pakistan, and important elements of the jihadist coalition, such as Islamist warlord Jalaluddin Haqqani's networks, have the support of that country's military establishment. In recent months, Mr. Karzai has lobbied Pakistan to allow Afghan peace negotiators direct access to the Taliban leadership, and to exercise pressure on the organisation to scale back attacks.

Little reason has emerged so far to believe that his efforts will yield results. Taliban leaders, believing their negotiation prospects will improve after 2014, walked out of talks with the United States in Doha last month — and, on Sunday, signalled that they will continue to use terror to disrupt the Afghan state.

That is bad news for Afghanistan's anxious Asian neighbours, who must now find means to solve a problem NATO's colossal resources failed to fix.

  • Iran and Pakistan, like India, bitterly opposed to the prospect of long-term NATO presence

  • Central Asian countries back it fearing Afghanistan will become an Islamist terror haven