Withdrawal symptoms

Karzai is aware of the prospects of being expendable, if safe withdrawal of Nato forces demands sacrificial goats to be offered up to the Taliban

Withdrawal is the most difficult and morale sapping of all military operations, especially in the face of an enemy snapping at the heels and picking off stragglers during a retreat through an alien and inhospitable countryside towards presumed sanctuary at the end of the march.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) finds itself facing the same historical predicament as Xenophon, Greek soldier and historian, as it prepares to withdraw from Afghanistan. It had somewhat misguidedly assumed control of operations in 2003, under coalition compulsions to provide the ex post facto fig leaf of collective security for the American military intervention in Afghanistan in 2001.
Nato was established in 1949, specifically for the security of Western Europe against a perceived threat from the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Afghanistan was never intended to be within its ambit of normal operations. It is evident that the organisation and its member countries are extremely uncomfortable to find themselves embroiled in a conflict perceived as irrelevant to the mission for which Nato was originally formed. The Nato troops would gladly welcome a withdrawal from Afghanistan as early as possible and would like to return to the familiar surroundings of Europe. But the geopolitical
scenario is bleak and certainly depressing for Nato planners as they contemplate the task ahead.
US President Barack Obama’s precipitate and premature announcement of July 2011 as the date of withdrawal for American troops did not help matters. His presidential announcement was, in effect, officially vetoed at the Nato conference on Afghanistan held in Chicago on May 23, 2012. In the conference, a three-stage schedule culminating in withdrawal of Nato forces by 2014 was approved. It is not known whether the participants at the Chicago conference had heard of Xenophon, but the withdrawal of Russia’s 40th Soviet Army under Gen. Gromov from Kabul in 1989 — after its failed Afghan intervention in 1979 — would undoubtedly have been of great contemporary relevance, provided Nato has benefited from the lessons of history.
Though Nato put up a brave face at the Chicago conference, there can be little doubt that at heart it is by now a thoroughly disparate and dispirited conglomeration, weighed down by major domestic problems amongst its constituent member-countries. It is desperately seeking an exit from Afghanistan at the earliest, by any possible means. Notwithstanding public assurances of total support by the United States, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, like President Mohammad Najibullah with the Soviets before him in 1989, is fully aware of the prospects of being considered expendable by the Americans in 2014, if necessity for safe withdrawal of the Western forces demands sacrificial goats to be offered up to the Taliban.
From the start of 2013, Nato will commence transfer of responsibility for national security to the Afghan political leadership and the Afghan National Army, which is currently undergoing training. In 2014, the role of Nato will change from active combat to training and support of the Afghan National Army. The training mission will be a stay-behind assignment — undoubtedly a high-risk mission that is likely to be on the Taliban’s hit list. It is unlikely that there will be adequate volunteers from amongst Nato countries for this unrewarding task and it is very likely that the bulk of training personnel may have to be formed out of contract mercenaries from private paramilitary organisations like Blackwater, who already constitute a significant presence as “advisers” in Iraq, Afghanistan and wherever there is an American military presence. Given the immense hatred and distrust of Blackwater operatives, their presence in Afghanistan is likely to cause major political embarrassment for President Karzai, as he prepares for national elections in 2014. It is an embarrassment he can do without and he may insist on a Nato training mission without mercenary advisers in their ranks.
Meanwhile, the Chicago conference assessed the required strength of the Afghan Army after withdrawal of Nato as 228,500 (i.e. about 20 divisions), whose upkeep and maintenance would require $4.1 billion per year. This would add up to a substantial amount for the contributing countries, primarily European, at a time when most are facing acute domestic economic crises. Of course, Nato has put on a brave face and pledged $1 billion, with Britain contributing $111 million annually, Italy $120 million, Australia $100 million, and Turkey $20 million.
Nature abhors a vacuum and it is time for India to act in preserving its own interests in post-Nato Afghanistan. A vast amount of goodwill exists in Afghanistan towards India because of the prompt and generous manner in which assistance has been provided for key reconstruction that has been of great benefit to the people.
Pakistan, for its part, has been totally averse to any Indian presence in Afghanistan and has been consistently supporting their jihadi proxies like the Quetta Shura and the Haqqani group to intimidate and eliminate secular figures like President Karzai who are supportive of India and favour closer ties with it. But President Karzai’s own compulsions of realpolitik requires him to walk the tightrope with Pakistan and its Taliban subsidiaries, notwithstanding their violent anti-India agenda. This must be appreciated by India.
Political transformation in Afghanistan has traditionally been a turbulent process and the coming changeover is unlikely to be any different. Many factions in the country are jockeying for power and India must protect its interests by its own realpolitik in nurturing and strengthening relationships with alternate power centres, particularly with the Northern Alliance.
President Karzai is aware of his country’s history and knows that till 2014 he has to consolidate his power base and establish himself amongst various contending elements. A preview of the price of failure has already been seen in the fate of Najibullah after the withdrawal of Soviet forces in 1989. India has a direct interest in preventing a fundamentalist takeover of Afghanistan for which President Karzai and other secular alternatives in the country must survive.

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