Friday, 24 August 2012

Afghanistan: One Long Struggle

by Andrew Jones


British and Afghan soldiers talk to an Afghan civilian
(image source: www.nato.int)

The history of Afghanistan has been one of undoubted bloodshed long before the Taliban's existence. Indeed for the British Army this marks the second theatre deployment into the region although this has for many been a far more shocking experience than they ever anticipated. The reason: IED's or Improvised Explosive Devices. For the soldiers on the ground it means that on a daily basis the threat of death looms with every step. It is this constant threat that has been referred to as "Afghan Roulette", where every step outside the safety of the base could be the last. Of the coalition forces stationed there the British force makes up the second largest contingent behind the US force. Therefore surely it is time for us to reassess the current situation and ask how long it will be before the British Army is able to return home.

Ministers try to reassure us that the date will be sometime towards the end of 2014, but, when Taliban fighters are constantly able to inflict significant casualties, it seems difficult to see how this deadline could ever be met. These problems are seemingly exacerbated when considering the implications of the Strategic Defence Review, which aims to cut around 20,000 jobs within the military. When, therefore, is the date for withdrawal really likely to be?

The most important factor in deciding the date for a British withdrawal will be the stability of the country, particularly the readiness of the Afghan National Army (“ANA”) to take on the security roles currently fulfilled by the British Army and the NATO force. Unlike previous examples, the Afghan war has been remarkably different, making a “victory” on the ground almost impossible. This is partially due to the method of warfare employed by the Taliban, particularly their use of guerilla-based tactics. It is this that makes it difficult to gain an accurate estimation of the Taliban's strength.  Comparing the casualty lists of 2012 and 2011 demonstrates the slow progress which is being made in restoring security to Afghanistan (52 personnel were killed in 2011 compared with 31 in the 8 months of 2012).

NATO commanders have agreed upon their exit strategy of transferring power to the Afghan National Army at the end of the 2014. Yet in 2006, a report filed by General Barry R. McCaffrey summed up the ANA as being “miserably under-resourced.” The ANA has been rapidly expanded in order to meet the NATO deadline of 2014 with a reported force of around 200,000 personnel. However, when considering that the NATO force combines some of the most technologically advanced armies in the world, the question remains as to whether the ANA is in any sort of state to take over. Indeed, perhaps most crucially, the lack of an aviation wing of the ANA means that the current date for transfer is possibly a recipe for disaster as they lack the air superiority which has been critical to the NATO success.

Afghan president, Hamid Karzai
(image source: allvoices.com)
The current political situation in Afghanistan is showing signs of promise. Under the observation of the American government, Afghanistan has founded a range of political institutions in order to deal with corruption. Indeed the most significant of these developments is the country's first democratically elected leader, Hamid Karzai. Local politics has also progressed, with the creation of local government positions since the ending of the Taliban regime, which is essential in a country where around 80% of the people live in rural regions. Women have also benefited in the new political climate, with a number holding positions in the government. This has not however been replicated in rural areas and, similarly, the legal system remains quite discriminatory towards women.

Despite this success in developing Afghanistan’s political system, many areas remain riddled with nepotism and corruption. Indeed these allegations have also been linked to President Karazi who has been accused of abusing his constitutional powers. These alleged abuses by Karzai have centred in the Kabul area where he has prolifically used his power of appointment in order to ensure his supporters' dominance of central government. Elections have also been mired in political controversy with little optimism about the future democratic process. Of particular concern was the 2009 election, which saw Hamid Karzai re-elected for a second term and in which the Afghan electoral commissioner was cited as being a close friend of Karzai.

Even on a local level, the government remains weak. The unstable nature of Afghanistan has meant that many local positions remain unfilled due to security fears. Furthermore, the diverse nature of Afghanistan's politics has made the prospect of a more unified government difficult, with some pressing for an Iran-style theocracy whilst others argue for a more liberal Islamic state. These issues currently make a NATO withdrawal unlikely in the foreseeable future, although progress is being made which demonstrates how Afghanistan is heading in the right direction.

Afghanistan's slow progress both on the political and military fronts means that the current date for the NATO withdrawal is perhaps premature. Indeed the worst possible scenario of another Taliban regime may be as a direct result. Most critically the lack of readiness of the ANA to fulfil the role of the NATO forces coupled with a lack of resources should be a major cause for concern. Indeed the end of President Karzi's reign surely will be a serious test of what is a fragile political system which is still fraught with difficulties. It is these difficulties that may mean the NATO mission continues long past 2014, further than many are prepared to admit.

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