End of Afghanistan Game & Options for Pakistan

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Air Commodore (R) Khalid Iqbal TI (M)[1]


(For Americans, the Afghanistan war is entering its final phase. President Obama is ensuring that this war endson his watch; he is also aware that none of the stated objectives of this war have visibly been achieved. Nevertheless, he would go down in the history as one of the most pragmatic presidents for pulling America out of this futile war without a stigma of formal defeat in the classical sense. Coinciding with the completion of foreign troops’ departure, the incumbent Afghan government’s term is also expiring in 2014, which makes it a weak bargainer for negotiating a post-2014 politico-military arrangement. President Karzai is visibly anxious that the 2014 electoral process throws up a successor whom he could trust. In all probability the Taliban will be included in Afghanistan’s power structure at different political tiers. Withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan, especially its extent and pace, presents a wide range of postulations. Perception gaps between the American led coalition and the Taliban led Afghan resistant groups are rather wide. Both are euphoric about the respective victory. America is looking for at least, a symbolic residual force. Political resistance groups are asking for total withdrawal. Afghan National Security Forces lack requisite capacity and capability to enforce order after the departure of foreign forces, raising the spectre of a civil war spill-over into Pakistan. This paper examines the fallouts of likely scenarios, their impact on Pakistan and the way out for minimizing the negativities. – Author)


Afghanistan, sans foreign forces, presents a captivating scenario, randomly tossed around with gigantic challenges and feeble opportunities. For Americans, the Afghanistan war is entering its final phase. Obama knows that this war will end on his watch, but not on his terms; and that his legacy as president will inevitably be shaped by its final outcome. Budgetary pressures and war weariness are taking their toll on the American nation. Yet, Obama is striving to make the departure a grand finale and make it look as if it has been a great victory, through retention of a symbolic garrison in Afghanistan after 2014. The foremost challenges to post withdrawal stability in Afghanistan are: inadequacy and incredibility of political structures; economic frailty; fragmented society; fragility of the law and order situation, coupled with a dysfunctional national security apparatus, etc. The resilience of the Afghan people to end foreign occupation, their conviction in the territorial integrity of their country, and apparent willingness of the international community to help stabilize Afghanistan present the opportunities.

America’s Afghanistan policy is pegged around deliberate ambiguity. This vagueness has given rise to a speculative scenario building based on various degrees of rollback of American influence, viz. total hands off, partial military withdrawal, complete military pullout and yet retention of economic and political influence of varying degrees are some of the assumptions on which most of the postulations are hinged. America’s core interest has now shifted to East Asia. Irrespective of the achievability of envisaged objectives, Afghanistan is now of periphery interest to America.

If Afghanistan is to be left in a stabilized state, then a systematic transition alongside a systemic viability is to be ensured. Persistent lowering of the bar in the context of envisaged objectives indicates that Americans are in a hurry to quit. American public is war weary and it is eagerly awaiting/pursuing early, speedy and complete withdrawal. The US Senate has approved, by a heavy majority of 62 to 33, a resolution calling for the withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan by the end of 2014[2].

The White House is confronted with an important decision: whether to leave a residual force after 2014, when the Afghan Army and police forces would have, at least theoretically, assumed full responsibility for the country’s security. And if answer to this dilemma is in affirmative, then the second questions arises as to what types and how many troops would suffice. The supportive argument for retaining a residual garrison is that a US contingent is needed for the Afghan elections in 2014, when some other collaborator other than Hamid Karzai must be found to be the President. This argument itself is an implicit admission of  failure of the US strategy for stabilizing Afghanistan; it also speaks for itself regarding inadequacies in the training and constitution of the Afghan National Army and police force.[3] American endeavour to keep a scaled down residual garrison and Afghan political resistance’s resolve to continue armed struggle till the proverbial departure of the last foreign soldiers present positions which are difficult to reconcile. Nevertheless, an open ended presence of residual foreign forces certainly stands ruled out.

Afghanistan Today: Security Perspective

US-Afghan Version

At the invitation of President Obama, President Karzai visited Washington, January 8-11, 2013[4]. The summit came at an important juncture as multiple actors began taking steps to definitize the politico-military contour of post 2014 Afghanistan. The two leaders discussed a strategic vision for a secure, stable and prosperous Afghanistan and reaffirmed the ‘US-Afghanistan Enduring Strategic Partnership Agreement signed in May 2012’. They emphasized a convergence of interests and vision. The two Presidents reviewed the security and economic transitions underway in Afghanistan, election preparations, evolving threats and opportunities in the region, and reaffirmed shared commitments to the US and Afghan strategic objectives:-

[5]—Advancing peace and security,


—Regional cooperation

—Strengthening Afghanistan’s democratic institutions

—Supporting Afghanistan’s long-term economic and social development

The two leaders welcomed the marked progress made in the growth and capabilities of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). They were of the view that the Afghan forces had exceeded initial expectations as they had begun leading a majority of the operations in July 2012 and were now leading approximately 80% of the operations. In February 2013, in conjunction with the fourth tranche of transition, the ANSF is expected to have the lead in securing nearly 90% of the Afghan population. Earlier, the Chicago NATO Summit (May 21-22, 2012) had committed to mark a milestone in mid-2013 when the ISAF mission would shift from combat to support[6]. Now this milestone would be marked earlier, during the forthcoming spring, when the ANSF are expected to assume the operational lead across Afghanistan, and ISAF will move into an advisor-support role. This milestone would coincide with announcing the fifth and final tranche of transition, which would commence implementation in the summer, subject to final NATO and Afghan approval[7].

Both Obama and Karzai envisioned that, at the time of the milestone, most unilateral US combat operations would end, with the US forces pulling back their patrols from Afghan villages. They recognized that, as the Afghan security forces take greater responsibility for security, improving the quality of ANSF, including the accelerated provision of appropriate equipment and enablers, remained a key priority.

Building upon significant progress in 2012 to transfer responsibility for detentions to the Afghan Government, the Presidents committed to placing Afghan detainees under the sovereignty and control of Afghanistan, while also ensuring that dangerous fighters remain off the battlefield. President Obama reaffirmed that the United States would continue to provide assistance to the Afghan detention system. President Karzai applauded an agreement to turn over control of prisons that house terrorism suspects to Afghanistan. He said that these steps, which the Afghans consider important to regaining full sovereignty over their country, would enable him to support a demand by the Obama administration that all American troops remaining in the country after 2014 be granted immunity from prosecution under the Afghan law[8].The two Presidents also reaffirmed their mutual commitment to ensure proper security arrangements for the protection of Afghan, US, and coalition forces[9]. They committed to conclude the ‘Bilateral Security Agreement’ as soon as possible. The scope and nature of any possible post-2014 US presence, legal protections for the US forces, and security cooperation between the two countries is to be specified in the ‘Bilateral Security Agreement’. The US reaffirmed that it does not seek permanent bases in Afghanistan.[10]

President Obama said that the United States is moving toward a “responsible end” to the war in Afghanistan that has lasted for 12 years.[11] He said that the troops will be withdrawn at a “steady pace,” but gave no details. In fact, he suggested it may be months before there is a decision. A “steady pace” should mean withdrawing all combat forces on a schedule dictated only by the security of the troops. Two American officials said last year that General Allen wanted to keep a significant military capability through the fighting season ending in fall 2013, which might translate to a force of more than 60,000 troops until the end of that period[12].

The White House is believed to favour faster reductions. As regards the residual military force beyond 2014, American and NATO military planners are drawing up the broad outlines for deployment of likely possibilities in the context of numbers of residual forces. One option calls for about 10,000 Americans and several thousand non-American NATO troops, including a counterterrorism force of about 1,000 and other units to advise Afghan security forces.

Residual Force Level Options

As for the size of the force after 2014, the White House has indicated that it is considering a range of 3,000 to 9,000 troops, which would be far lower than the Pentagon’s high-end proposals varying from 15000 to 20,000. The intent may be to keep enough to carry out “a very limited mission” of training Afghan forces and hunting down remnants of Al Qaeda[13].

The comments by the US Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes prior to President Karzai’s visit to America provided some insight into the likely options. Rhodes made it clear that a decision on post-2014 troop levels is not expected for months and will be made based on two US security objectives in Afghanistan: denying a safe haven to Al Qaeda and ensuring that Afghan forces are trained and equipped so that they, and not the foreign forces, can secure the nation. President Karzai has reportedly been counting on a force of around 15,000, but that seems unlikely.[14] Obama could even opt to remove everyone, as was done in Iraq in 2011. Asked about consideration of a “zero-option” once the NATO combat mission ends at the end of 2014, Rhodes said: “That would be an option that we would consider.” The US and Afghan negotiators are working on a long-term deal. If talks stall, the US would be compelled to pull all of its troops out of Afghanistan; as it did in 2011, when similar talks with Iraq faltered over a US demand for legal immunity for residual troops in Iraq.

America is looking forward to immunity for any US troops that could remain in Afghanistan. This unsettled question figured the most during the Obama-Karzai summit. “As we know from our Iraq experience, if there are no authorities granted by the sovereign state, then there’s no room for a follow-on US military mission,” said Douglas Lute, special assistant to Obama for Afghanistan and Pakistan. However, it is widely speculated that the zero-option was floated as a bargaining chip during President Karzai’s visit[15].

Earlier, the White House had asked for options to be developed for keeping between 3,000 and 9,000 troops in the country, a lower range than was initially put forward by General John Allen, the top US and NATO commander in Afghanistan, who had suggested keeping between 6,000 and 15,000 troops in Afghanistan. Pentagon has already developed scaled-back force-level options for keeping 3,000, 6,000 or 9,000 American troops in Afghanistan after 2014. The Pentagon wants to keep at least 9,000 troops in Afghanistan to ensure enough forces to support Afghan troops and continue counterterrorism operations in the region.

Retired General Stanley McChrystal, a former US commander of the Afghan mission who resigned in 2010, has said in a recent interview with Reuters that there was a value to having an overt US military presence in Afghanistan after 2014; even if it wasn’t large. “The art, I would say, would be having the smallest number so that you give the impression that you are always there to help, but you’re never there either as an unwelcome presence or an occupier – or any of the negatives that people might draw,” he said, without commenting on any specific numbers[16]. General McChrystal added, “We certainly don’t want to keep huge numbers for our purposes, or Afghan purposes…But I think a small number in selected locations does provide a visible commitment of America.” While he didn’t want to recommend any specific troop level, he opined that a small force in Afghanistan would help boost the confidence of the Afghan government as well as provide stronger ties with security forces.

Talk of a smaller US presence has spurred concerns among some Western allies and strategists about whether the remaining forces would be able to prevent another era of instability in Afghanistan.

A senior NATO official said a force of less than 6,000 would have “very limited” capacity. The ability to see and strike terrorist groups that aim to attack the United States or its allies from within the region would be degraded. Al Qaeda could surge into growing ungoverned spaces and perhaps re-establish a more prominent foothold. The US influence on a nuclear-armed Pakistan would undoubtedly lessen if US troops were no longer stationed next door. And the potential for the United States to put pressure on Iran from US forces posted near its eastern border would vanish. By any measure, it is a suboptimal posture for the United States in the region, but not necessarily an untenable one. The NATO official added that it would also make it much harder for the Pentagon to convince other allies to send troops as trainers[17]. The potential alternatives reflect a familiar pattern within the Obama administration on the use of force. Sensitive to public opinion and budgetary pressures, the White House has generally favoured lower troop levels during its previous deliberations on Afghanistan and Iraq.

Anthony Cordesman,  national security analyst at the ‘Centre for Strategic and International Studies’, said it is realistic for the US to consider a “zero option” because of possible opposition to a post-2014 troop presence from Taliban leaders and others. “Is it the most probable option the administration is seeking at this time? No,” he said. “But we didn’t have a zero option in Iraq until we had a zero reality.” The outcome of America’s war in Iraq sets a strong precedent for a similar “zero”. Iraq has not become an Iranian puppet state nor descended into chaos since the United States withdrew all its military forces at the end of 2011. The United States maintains a robust diplomatic presence there — and presumably conducts intelligence activities — to protect its interests[18].

The United States has powerful remote intelligence, surveillance, and strike capabilities that could only be dreamed of in the 1990s. These capabilities increasingly can be employed from “stand-off” distances, with a few flying from as far as the United States. Some of these capabilities require regional basing, but Afghanistan is not the only country that can provide low-visibility basing options. Eleven years of extensive quiet intelligence efforts partnered with Afghans and Pakistanis have created a deep web of friendly contacts that will be maintained long after 2014. In some ways, the post-2014 environment in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area could evolve into a prolonged “intelligence war,” with hundreds of US operatives and billions of covert dollars invested in preventing further terrorist attacks on the United States[19].

Therefore, regardless of the size of the residual US military presence, America will have to weigh the substantial risks inherent in a “Zero Option” for Afghanistan. Minus the stabilizing influence of some numbers of US troops, Afghanistan could slip back into chaos, experiencing a new version of the devastating civil war. At the same time, presence of any number of US troops would provide raison d’etre to the resistance groups to continue their armed resistance.

A year and a half ago, President Obama had decaled that the 30,000 American troops deployed to Afghanistan for the “surge” would be home by September 2012, and he made good on that promise. He also said troop reductions would continue at a “steady pace” until the remaining 66,000 were out by the end of 2014[20].

Beside ISAF/NATO perspectives, the Taliban have also sought to influence the debate over United States troop levels. Taliban have repeatedly warned that they would continue the war if any “residual” troops remained, according to the SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors terrorist organizations and their communications.

Moreover, the Taliban have asked for free and fair elections in 2014, which should be held without the presence of foreign military forces in Afghanistan. While addressing the Foundation for Strategic Research (FRS) Chantilly, Paris on December 20-21, 2012, the Chief Taliban negotiator, Maulvi Shahabuddin Dilawar, said: “The occupation must be ended as a first step which is the want of the entire nation because this is the mother of all these tragedies. Invaders and their allies must realize that no international power can subdue the power of people and neither can the quandary end with irresponsible and unlawful agreements…America and those who have allied with them under different names must answer the calls of the Afghan and their own nations, withdraw all their troops and put an end to the killing and oppression of the helpless Afghans…We especially call on all those nations, whose governments have sent their sons against their approval to kill the innocent Afghan people, to take a page from the French nation and put pressure on their governments to withdraw their troops from our country”.[21] The Taliban are indeed pursuing zero option.

The Afghan Taliban have also called for a new constitution as a pre-condition for its joining the nation’s fledgling peace process, the Taliban’s top negotiator told the Paris conference: “Afghanistan’s present constitution has no value for us because it was made under the shadows of B-52 bombers of the invaders.” Though Dilawar did not reject the election process in Afghanistan, he stressed that polls in the presence of “invading forces” would not produce results[22].

In the context of maintenance of security in Afghanistan, Dilawer said, “It is also a reality that every nation, after attaining independence, has a need to maintain its borders, security and sovereignty and this need can only be accomplished through police and army faithful to its people, religion and nation. Therefore it is incumbent that our security apparatus be trained on religious principles and national spirit; is cleansed from prejudice on lingual, ethnical and regional basis and is bound to serving its people and securing its sovereignty. If it is not as such then such an army is not fit for maintaining its national and Islamic goals and neither can it be called a national army. Instead of working for national interests, it will be used against its religion, country and people…Afghanistan are an underdeveloped nation economically. It cannot maintain a highly paid army in the long term due to its expenses being several times higher than the country’s GDP. In such a condition, the government will be forced to abide by terms and sometimes unreasonable demands of lending nations… It is also a reality that in the current world, a country cannot feel secure and at peace without a powerful defensive system and will have to always feel at danger. Hence it is necessary that Afghanistan builds a strong air force alongside a strong ground force in order to reassure its nation…Foreigners and Kabul do not have an inclination towards peace and neither are they ready to abide by the rules and goals of peace…Even now, they state one thing and do another. On the one hand they say that peace must be achieved and on the other, they add new people to the black list; they say that they will leave Afghanistan but sign strategic pacts in false hopes of prolonging their occupation”[23].

ASNF Capacity and Capability

Americans are certainly overselling the capacity and capability of ANSF, and down playing its serious weaknesses. Though Afghan Army and police forces are being projected as having taken over the responsibility for securing larger and larger swaths of the country, the Pentagon has admitted that only 1 of 23 NATO-trained brigades can operate without American assistance. The recent alarming rise in fatal attacks by Afghan forces on their American military mentors has crushed whatever was left of America’s appetite for continuing the costly conflict. The number of these attacks is on the rise ever since the raising of ANSF began; moreover, most of these attacks have taken place against the foreign troops when they were stationed at their bases. This may degenerate to ethno-sectarian lines after the departure of ISAF/NATO troops.

America’s goals in Afghanistan have been significantly narrowed down and now the focus is on withdrawing the 66,000 troops as soon as possible. Over the last few years, Afghanistan has signed Strategic agreements with different states, especially with the US and India. Afghanistan has also signed similar agreements with Germany, France, Italy, Britain and Australia. This is a quest for strengthening a strategic and political hedge. However, all these arrangements hang in vacuum and cannot substitute intra-Afghan reconciliation and reintegration. Key to success lies in engaging the resistance elements, at a political level.

Afghanistan is in a state of perpetual turmoil. Multilateral processes initiated at various venues like Bonn, Istanbul, Islamabad, Kabul, Doha, Tokyo, etc have not been able to translate in to an enabling environment for political reconciliation and reintegration of militants, which are two foundation stones for lasting peace. Major causes of stagnation are a complexly woven pattern of intra-Afghan suspicions and criss-crossing lines of mistrust at bilateral and multi-lateral levels. Unless these factors are taken into account and a corrective campaign is launched, various actors would continue to operate at cross purposes. Intra-Afghan harmony has always been a difficult objective to achieve, and tricky to sustain. Ethno-sectarian fault lines are deep seeded; they have external strings as well as domestic dynamics. These realities cannot be undone, yet there is sufficient tactical and strategic space to construct durable reconciliation and reintegration processes. At regional level, all immediate neighbours wish to have a peaceful Afghanistan. However, successful initiation and sustenance of these processes is dependent on the course the foreign forces choose to take.

Inherent flaws of dual track strategy of decimating as well as negotiating with the Taliban have become apparent.  When the resistance group are advocating complete withdrawal of foreign troops, Strategic Partnership Arrangement with the incumbent Afghan government, ambiguity about left behind forces and pursuit of permanent military bases are creating an environment of uncertainty, which is reversing the reconciliation and reintegration efforts. Most of the forums and actors who appear active towards reconciliation and reintegration do not enjoy the repute of an honest broker in the eyes of resistance groups and the people of Afghanistan. Hence, it is necessary to change the faces owning and managing reconciliation and integration efforts.

Unlike ISAF/NATO, there are no apparent signs of war weariness amongst the Afghans. ISAF/NATO forces have a schedule to follow. Surge troops have been de-inducted; the rest would follow. Thus hardly a month passes by when someone important in Western capitals does not lower the bar on attainment of war aims in Afghanistan. America has neither been able to achieve Bush’s transformative ambitions, nor Obama’s watered down face saving expectations. A logical question intrigues all minds about the future course that Afghanistan could follow as foreign forces phase out.

The methodology of NATO withdrawal, as outlined in the ‘Chicago Declaration’, raises dilemmas about restoration of durable peace and stability in Afghanistan in the context of interplay of various Afghan forces, and the prevalent regional and global security environment. Historic evidence has it that neither the Taliban, nor the Northern Alliance alone could sustain their rule over Afghanistan while ensuring peace and stability.

Ironically, onus of leaving behind a reconciled and reintegrated Afghan society is on ISAF/NATO; while responsibility to sustain such an arrangement would be of the Afghan government, specially the security forces. Unfortunately, as of now, none of them have the capacity and capability to shoulder their respective responsibility. Some analysts believe that withdrawal of foreign forces without stabilizing Afghanistan will plunge the country into a civil war. However, other viewpoints hold that: the presence of alien troops itself is contributing towards instability; and these forces are in no position to stabilize Afghanistan; whenever foreign forces leave, Afghanistan will invariably go through another round of civil war; and, the longer the foreign forces stay, the greater would be the intensity and duration of such a civil war.

The Afghan Army is so plagued with desertions that it has to replace a third of its entire force every year. That implies that a third of the Afghan Army perpetually consists of first year recruits fresh from a three months’ nominal military training formality. They are inducted into an environment endemic with militants who have ample military equipment to re-arm these deserters as their comrades at arms. Afghan deserters complain of Taliban intimidation of their families and lack of faith in the army’s ability to fight the insurgents after the foreign military withdraws. The Afghan army commanders complain about lack of adequate capability and capacity; they fear that the Taliban will eventually gain ground.  Taliban attacks on Afghan military have dwindled because the army has refused to patrol far out of their bases, even though the Taliban presence in such areas has increased. Theoretically, ANSF is all set to take operational control from foreign forces, and by the end of 2014, Afghanistan will have a 350,000 ‘strong’ security force. However, the actual situation is far different. Likelihood of a gradual meltdown of Afghan security forces on ethno-sectarian lines is a reality. Naysayers predict that the moment foreign forces leave, the civil war would begin and the country could be divided into 25 or 30 fiefdoms, each with its own government and ethnic militias.

Realising this, Pakistan has long been offering Afghanistan to train its army but, until recently, Kabul had shown little interest. However, now Islamabad and Kabul are close to signing a deal that will allow the Pakistan Army to train Afghan national security forces.  Qualitative progress was made during the talks between visiting Afghan Defence Minister Bismillah Khan Mohammadi and Army Chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani at the General Headquarters in Rawalpindi on December 28, 2012[24]. The two sides agreed to explore the possibility of “military training exchanges”, with particular focus on “enhancing mutual defence cooperation and measures that the Afghan National Army and Pakistan Army intend to initiate for an enduring training relationship.” An Afghan delegation would visit military institutions as part of efforts to assess how the two neighbours could enter into an accord to strengthen military-to-military contacts[25].

Mission of Residual Garrison

Any American military contingent that remains in Afghanistan beyond 2014 is expected to have a multi-faceted mission. The overarching function would be maintenance of deterrence to keep various Afghan factions within the confines of their respective predetermined political fiefdom. The force composition would include Special Operations Forces, intelligence operatives and contractors. This force would be assigned to carry out raids against ‘Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups’ that are deemed to threaten American interests. Another key task would be to manage the intra-Afghan factional balance of power for ensuring continuation of an American compliant government in Kabul. Residual troops would also advise and mentor the Afghan Army and police in conjunction with forces from other NATO nations. Such a force would need to be able to support itself logistically, to have the ability to carry out medical evacuations and to conduct air-strikes to protect any of its troops that might be in danger. Symbolically, the contingent would represent continuing American supervision over the Afghan nation.

Options for Pakistan

Pakistan’s leverage over the US policy on Afghanistan is limited. Relations between Taliban commanders and Pakistan’s security establishment have increasingly been poisoned by mistrust, raising questions over whether Pakistan could wield enough influence to nudge them towards the table. Nevertheless, diplomats in Islamabad argue that Pakistan has begun to show markedly greater enthusiasm for Western-backed attempts to engage with Taliban leaders. Western diplomats, who for years were sceptical about Pakistani promises, say Islamabad is serious about promoting stability in Afghanistan.

Pakistan has faced a set of overlapping crises in the past several decades due to its proximity with Afghanistan. Pakistan has been the chief victim of terrorism. Pakistan has suffered more than 10,000 military casualties while fighting terror. Even the ISI has suffered over 350 deaths, a higher toll than the CIA has suffered in its entire history. Under these murky circumstances, when there is lack of clarity about the ‘Way Forward’ for resolving the Afghan conflict, Pakistan needs to follow a cautious approach. Pakistan has made extraordinary efforts and sacrifices to eradicate the scourge of terrorism and build a peaceful and stable region. As a nation, we continue to pay a heavy price for standing firm in this resolve. We have lost over 40,000 people; the economic cost is nearly 70-80 billion dollars. Despite these gigantic losses, Pakistan’s commitment towards stabilizing Afghanistan remains unwavering. Yet, and ironically, its credibility on the subject continues to be poor.

Pakistan has been emphasizing a political solution of the Afghan issue, as resolution through purely military means has failed. Pakistan indeed, played a great role in bringing the Taliban and the US closer to each other for political dialogue. At the bilateral level also, Pakistan continues to play the role of a facilitator between the Afghan government and resistance groups. President Karzai understands the stark reality that the Taliban cannot be defeated and they have to be co-opted. He wants a quick reconciliation with them. Pakistan and Afghanistan have resumed parleys to revive a stalled process seeking direct negotiations with the Afghan Taliban. The head of the Afghan High Peace Council, Salahuddin Rabbani was in Pakistan (12-14 November, 2012); he also joined the proceedings of the trilateral Ankara summit to carry forth the reconciliation process[26].

The London tripartite (3-4 February, 2013) committed to achieve in “six months” what has been eluding the international community for over a decade: peace in Afghanistan.[27] Presidents Zardari and Karzai said that they would work to reach a peace deal within six months, while throwing their weight behind moves for the Taliban to open an office in Doha. The two leaders also urged the Taliban militias to join the reconciliation process. A joint statement by Cameron’s office stated: “All sides agreed on the urgency of this work and committed themselves to take all necessary measures to achieve the goal of a peaceful settlement over the next six months… They supported the opening of an office in Doha for the purpose of negotiations between the Taliban and the High Peace Council of Afghanistan as part of an Afghan-led peace process.”[28]

But with no Taliban representation at the talks and with the resistance groups still averse to direct negotiations with Kabul, analysts opine that the trio had risked being one-sided. The summit and other “horse trading” were “the real obstacles of effective and fruitful negotiations between the factual sides”, wrote Zabihullah Mujahid, the Taliban spokesperson, in an apparent reference to a longstanding demand that any negotiations should be between the Taliban and the United States. Mujahid accused Western nations of facing a military defeat and using such conferences as propaganda to conceal the deadlock in the country and to “show that some activity and progress is going on”[29]. The Taliban had suspended contacts with American representatives in Qatar, in March 2012, over a row regarding potential prisoner exchange and opening a liaison office in Doha. They have consistently refused to negotiate directly with the Western-backed Kabul government, against whom it has been waging an insurgency for 11 years. “We consider the Karzai government a puppet as it was installed and imposed by foreigners on the people of Afghanistan,” said Zabihullah Mujahid[30].

In another development, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) has ‘put on hold’ a Turkmenistan conference, planned to encourage Afghan stakeholders to hold talks. UNAMA was planning to hold this conference during March/April 2013. The Afghan government, which had previously welcomed the Turkmenistan moot, came up with strong opposition when a peace conference in Paris in late December, 2012 attracted the world’s attention.[31] UNAMA has a mandate to stress the importance of a comprehensive and inclusive, Afghan-led and Afghan-owned political process to support reconciliation for all those who ‘are prepared to reconcile’. Furthermore, the Karzai government attached conditions to the Taliban-US dialogue process in Qatar, agreeing that more talks must be held between the Taliban and the High Peace Council; a proposal firmly rejected by the Taliban.

However, contrary to their public rhetoric, a senior Taliban leader has revealed that the Afghan Taliban are considering a ‘political solution’. “We must launch a political movement to achieve the goals for which we have made so many sacrifices,” said Mullah Agha Jan Mutasim, former head of the Taliban Political Commission and a close confidant of Mullah Omar. “The Taliban leaders whose names have been removed from the UN black list will play an important role in the political process.” However, he added that the warring faction was a “vital part of the Taliban.”[32] Pakistan’s influential politico-religious leader Maulana Fazlur Rehman met with Taliban representatives in Doha, on February 10, 2013, in an effort to broker peace talks.  Officially, both sides denied the meeting[33]. Perception has it that this meeting had the blessing of Pakistan’s military and political leadership.

Some political analysts also opine that the Taliban are war-weary. “The Taliban are tired of war and it will be a step in the right direction if they launch a political movement,” Rashid Waziri, an adviser at the Regional Studies Centre of Afghanistan, said on March 03, 2013. “We are waiting for conducive conditions to make a formal announcement,” said Mutasim, when asked about the possible launch of their political party.  Mullah Mutasim is also concerned about possible civil war in the post-2014 Afghanistan. He said, “This concern deepens when one considers possible interventions [in Afghanistan] by greedy neighbours and other regional powers.”

Alongside the efforts of reconciliation, there is a need for a synergic campaign towards a sustainable process of reintegration. Reintegration is the operational and tactical level follow-up activity of a reconciliation effort. Pakistan should facilitate this process as well. The reintegration process must address three issues: guaranteeing the security of those Taliban elements that lay down their arms; providing them with economic livelihoods; and ensuring that they do not rejoin the insurgency[34]. This could come-by through a robust development strategy resulting in massive job creation. Transformation of the Afghan economy from war to other sustainable alternative sources remains a daunting task. The Tokyo Conference has not been able to put forward a long term plan for such a transformation.

The solution lies in a multi-pronged approach that also includes the promotion of democratic values, expansion in political and economic opportunities, and strengthening the rule of law. The ultimate goal should be to win hearts and minds of the Afghan people, especially those segments of the local population who are most vulnerable to fall prey to an extremist mind set.

A catastrophe can be avoided by a responsible and credible central Afghan government. Any attempt to install a government through fake elections is not likely to benefit any side. Moreover, reaching a negotiated power sharing formula in lieu of elections is also poised to fail. Some developments, like signs of an incipient peace process between the Taliban and the Afghan government are promising. However, Afghan factions neither have a good track record of reaching a mutually acceptable formula, nor of honouring such arrangement, if at all such understandings are reached. Governance structures established at the Bonn Conference, in December 2001, have not been effective. Reworking of the Centre-province relationship is an important factor. Falling back to Afghan tradition, of a loose federal system, is likely to have better acceptance.  Besides an elected lower house of parliament, it would be make sense to design an Afghan specific Upper House to give membership to all tribal elders and other important personalities.

As of now, most of the forums and actors who appear active towards political reconciliation and reintegration do not enjoy the repute of an honest broker in the eyes of resistance groups and the people of Afghanistan. Hence, it is necessary to change the faces owning and managing reconciliation and integration efforts. Therefore, to avert further drift and deterioration in the present situation, there is a necessity to induct a suitable presence of P-5 in all reconciliation efforts. A person of high international standing needs to be appointed as the representative of either the P-5 or the Security Council or the Secretary General of the UN, for coordinating with the people of Afghanistan in a credible peace process. It is imperative to secure public representation on a principled basis, say by holding fair and free elections in Afghanistan under the control and supervision of the United Nations.  This would encourage all the ethnic and sectarian communities to elect their representatives without the fear of rigging. The electoral process would determine the actual weight of each faction. Each entity would in turn appoint a representative team with a mandate to negotiate a political settlement.

Such an endeavour requires a cease fire by all combatants and replacement of foreign forces by a UN peace keeping mission. With the stigma of occupation gone and the political weight of all factions determined, the Afghan people would shed the psychological pressures and come forth to own the process. All resistance groups should be inducted into the political process by allowing them to form political parties and contest elections from these platforms.

Pakistan’s Role

Pakistan should continue to prudently assist the Afghan peace and reconciliation effort. Pakistan should deepen people-to-people links with Afghans, and focus on mutually beneficial development projects. Pakistan should maintain and expand its linkages with all elements of Afghan political resistance on equitable basis. Pakistan should support an intra-Afghan reconciliation process that should be carried forth by a phased timeline for a gradual sharing of power. The Foreign Minister of Pakistan travelled to Doha on March 03, 2013 and met senior Qatari leaders to work out a new mechanism under which Taliban detainees would be released in the future.[35] Pakistan has released over two dozen Taliban cadres at the request of the Afghan High Peace Council; however this effort has not produced the desired results. Now, efforts are being made to evolve a new mechanism under which future releases would be made. One of the proposals on the table envisages that Pakistan should hand over senior Taliban commanders, including Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, to Qatar, where the Afghan Taliban have been allowed to set up a ‘political office’[36]. A Foreign Office official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that Pakistan was willing to give serious thought to the idea to facilitate peace talks in Afghanistan; however, Pakistan is of the conviction that the Qatar initiative should have a broad-based agenda inviting all Afghan insurgent groups, including the Haqqani network, to the negotiating table because only an ‘all-inclusive intra-Afghan dialogue’ would ensure peace and stability in Afghanistan on a sustainable basis[37].

Pakistan fully supports the Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace and reconciliation process. Pakistan stands committed to work in unison with its Afghan brethren to achieve sustainable reconciliation and robust reintegration in Afghanistan. Pakistan is pressing forward for achieving stability in Afghanistan, because, like a lot of people in the region, Pakistan recognises that 2014 is not so far away[38]. The thaw was under way when, in mid-November, Pakistan decided to free some Afghan Taliban to boost the Hamid Karzai government’s peace efforts.

While addressing a joint meeting of the Political and Security Council and the European Union (EU) Military Committee in Brussels on December 03, 2012, General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani gave Pakistan’s perspective on the Afghan endgame and its implications on regional peace and security[39]. He said that an “Afghan owned and Afghan led” reconciliation process was the only way forward to seek an end to the long and costly war in Afghanistan. General Kayani while participating in an interactive session attended by ambassadors and delegations comprising of defence and military officials of the 27-nation bloc reiterated that Pakistan would support an Afghan-owned and led reconciliation process. “They seem to genuinely want to move towards a political solution,” said an official from an EU country. “We’ve seen a real shift in their game-plan at every level. Everyone involved seems to want to get something going.”[40]

General Kayani’s speech not only highlighted that Pakistan was against outside interference in Afghanistan, but also suggested that the country would only be a facilitator, not leader, in the reconciliation process. This was a reminder that Pakistan’s support will be subject to the peace process not being harmful to its interests. That would require solid measures to ensure that no security vacuum is created in Afghanistan after the US withdrawal.

Addressing Pakistan’s concerns about post-2014 Afghanistan, NATO Chief Andre Fogh Rasmussen assured that the alliance would not leave a “security vacuum” in the country after the withdrawal of its troops.  Rasmussen said in a meeting with Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar at the NATO headquarters in Brussels that NATO also wants to reinvigorate its political dialogue with Pakistan and to move beyond 2014.[41]

A two-day meeting of the Pak-US Defence Consultative Group was held in Rawalpindi on December 3-4, 2012 to discuss the regional security situation, including Afghanistan. The 21st round of the two-day event was a continuation of the Pak-US defence parleys held in Washington in May last year. The group discussed the transition leading to the withdrawal of US-led foreign forces from Afghanistan by 2014. Describing a slew of high-level exchanges between Pakistan and Afghanistan as “interesting developments’, a State Department official said the US recognised that “the Pakistanis have an important role to play in Afghan reconciliation…. about an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process, call on the Taliban to get involved in this process, and are having these sort of direct contacts with the Afghans, is all to the good.”[42]

The then Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, met with President Asif Ali Zardari in Chicago during the NATO summit in May, 2012, and discussed five common objectives for further cooperation between two countries; counter terrorism measures, Afghanistan’s future, bilateral communication, countering improvised explosive devices that are being used against international troops in Afghanistan and the movement towards an economic trade relationship.

Pakistan has recently released mid-level Afghan Taliban prisoners to help facilitate peace talks between the militant group and the Kabul government; it is the clearest sign that it was committed to advancing Afghan reconciliation. Pakistan has also agreed to provide safe passage for those wishing to enter talks. Pakistan would also encourage Afghan insurgents to enter into direct talks with President Hamid Karzai’s government.[43]

Pakistan’s army chief has made reconciling warring factions in Afghanistan a top priority.  General Ashfaq Kayani is backing dialogue partly due to fears that the end of the US combat mission in Afghanistan in 2014 could energize a resilient insurgency straddling the shared frontier. “Pakistan has the power to create the environment in which a grand reconciliation in Afghanistan can take place,” he recently said, while speaking to troops in Wana, about 30 km from Afghanistan: “We have to rise to the challenge. And we are doing it, at the highest level possible.” On December 7, 2012, general Kayani showed determination to support a negotiated end to the war in Afghanistan at a meeting of top commanders at the army headquarters in Rawalpindi. “He (Kayani) said Afghan reconciliation is our top priority.”[44]

Options for Pakistan

Though the situation is quite murky, Pakistan should carry-forth its concerted effort for post 2014 peaceful Afghanistan. It needs to follow a multitier approach for setting in synergic processes at international, bilateral and domestic levels. Recommendations for each level are summarised below:-

International level

  • Engage all immediate neighbours of Afghanistan for evolving a post 2014 code of conduct, in terms of border management, reconstruction and non-interference in internal affairs of Afghanistan. In this regard Uzbekistan’s 6+2 initiative could serve as a starting point.
  • Launch a diplomatic campaign for enhanced role of UN P 5 and the OIC in the processes leading towards final settlement. The P5 should be the guarantor of all such agreements pertaining to post 2014 Afghanistan.
  • Peruse for the appointment of a person of impeccable repute as representative of UNSG to carry forth the process of Afghan national reconciliation.
  • Propose at the international forums that, as a stop gap measure and for implementing a societal level cool-down phase, a UN peace keeping mission may be stationed in Afghanistan for 5-7 years.
  • Propose and pursue a Neutral State Status for Afghanistan.

Bilateral level

  • Assist Afghan government’s peace and reconciliation effort when asked to do so.
  • Deepen people-to-people links and focus on mutually beneficial development projects.
  • Maintain and expand linkages with all elements of Afghan political resistance groups on equitable basis. Pakistan should support an intra-Afghan political process that should be carried forth by a phased timeline for a gradual sharing/devolution of power.
  • Facilitate reintegration processes.
  • Strive for a democratic transition based on one person-one-vote basis.
  • Dispel the impression of favouring any specific ethnic group.
  • The solution lies in a multi-pronged approach that also includes the promotion of democratic values, expansion in political and economic opportunities, and strengthening the rule of law.
  • The ultimate goal should be to win hearts and minds of the Afghan people, especially those segments of the local population who are most vulnerable to fall prey to an extremist mind set.


For Pakistan today, the most important capital in the world is Kabul because instability there could spill over into Pakistan, and fuel its own Taliban insurgency.  There are many loose ends which need to be tied if durable peace is to be ensured in Afghanistan.  Where other immediate and distant neighbours may have concerns about the trajectory that Afghanistan could take after 2014, Pakistan has stakes. Already a home to 3.0 million Afghan refugees, Pakistan cannot afford to stay indifferent to the ongoing developments regarding Afghanistan. Pakistan should take the lead in bridging the perceptional gaps between the Kabul government and various political resistance groups of Afghanistan. Things are moving at a fast speed, Pakistan has to keep up to remain a relevant player. In all probability, America is seriously considering keeping a residual military force of 3,000 to 9,000, for an indefinite period after 2014. Political resistance groups are asking for zero foreign troops. An open ended presence of even a scaled down American military contingent can be safely ruled out. Pakistan should be ready for a situation emerging out of complete troops withdrawal and retention of political influence, by America, through non-military means. However, contingency arrangements should be kept in place to meet the fall out of retention of a de-scaled garrison, supported by a large number of non-uniformed military experts. As a pressure tactic, America may keep its military bases in Afghanistan, on appropriate readiness status to fly-in additional troops, should the situation so demand. Pakistan should take a look at Afghanistan in a wholesome way; it should strive for a democratic transition based on a one person-one-vote basis. Pakistan should dispel the impression of favouring any specific ethnic group.

The author is a former Assistant Chief of Air Staff, Pakistan Air Force. He is a Consultant (Policy & Strategic Response) for IPRI.

An abridged form of this paper titled “Afghanistan Sans Foreign Troops and Options for Pakistan” was read in a seminar Organized by the “Centre for Pakistan and Gulf Studies”, on February 21, 2013. Paper was later expanded and last updated on March 05, 2013.

[2] The Nation (Islamabad), December 03, 2012.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Barack Obama and Hamid Karzai, “Joint Statement by President Obama and President Karzai, January 11, 2013”, Published by Council for Foreign relations on January 11, 2013. http://www.cfr.org/afghanistan/joint-statement-president-obama-president-karzai-january-2013/p29803 (accessed on January 12, 2113)

[6] Official Texts from “The Chicago Summit 2012”. http://www.nato.int/cps/en/natolive/events_84074.htm (accessed on January 22, 2013)

[7] Barack Obama and Hamid Karzai, “Joint Statement by President Obama and President Karzai, January 11,  2013”, Published by Council for Foreign relations on January 11, 2013. http://www.cfr.org/afghanistan/joint-statement-president-obama-president-karzai-january-2013/p29803

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

7 The Afghan War’s Last Chapter? http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/12/opinion/is-this-the-afghan-wars-last-chapter.html?partner=rss&emc=rss&_r=0 (A version of this editorial appeared in print on January 12, 2013, on page A18 of the New York edition with the headline: The Afghan War’s Last Chapter[11]?). (Accessed on January 14, 2013).

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Matt Spetalnick and Phil Stewart, U.S. Floats an Afghan ‘Zero Option’ Rueters, Washington January 8, 2013 7:48 pm EST. Editing by Eric Beech and Christopher Wilson; additional reporting by David Alexander.

[16] General McChrystal,   “My Share of the Task: A Memoir,” published  in  January 2013; http://topics.nytimes.com/topics/reference/timestopics/people/m/stanley_a_mcchrystal/index.html,  (accessed on January 22, 2-13).

[17] Matt Spetalnick and Phil Stewart, “U.S. Floats an Afghan ‘Zero Option” Reuters, Washington January 8, 2013 7:48 pm EST. Editing by Eric Beech and Christopher Wilson.

[18] Ibid.


[20] Editorial, “The Pace of Leaving Afghanistan”, International Herald Tribune (The Global Edition of the New York Times), November 27, 2012. (A version of this editorial appeared in print on November 28, 2012, on page A32 of the New York edition with the headline: The Pace of Leaving Afghanistan).

[21] Text of speech enunciated by Afghan Taliban at research conference in France,

http://www.terminalx.org/2012/12/full-text-of-afghan-taliban-speech-in-paris.html (accessed on December 26, 2012).

[22] http://tribune.com.pk/story/483314/afghan-taliban-seek-charter-reform-in-paris-meeting/ (acessed on December 24,2012)

[23]http://www.terminalx.org/2012/12/full-text-of-afghan-taliban-speech-in-paris.html (accessed on December 26, 2012).

[24] The Express Tribune (Islamabad), December 29, 2012.

[25] Ibid.

[26]The Express Tribune (Islamabad), December 13, 2012.

[27] The Express Tribune (Islamabad), February 05, 2013.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid.

[31] The Express Tribune (Islamabad), February 08, 2013.

[32] The Express Tribune (Islamabad), March o4, 2013.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Aunohita Mojumdar, “Afghanistan: Decoding Reintegration and Reconciliation,” available at: http://www.eurasianet.org/departments/insight/articles/eav020910b.shtml (accessed on: November 3, 2012).

[35] The Express Tribune (Islamabad), March o4, 2013.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Editorial, “Positive signs”, Dawn (Islamabad), December 05, 2012.

[39] Office of Director General, Inter Services Public Relations Rawalpindi, Press Release dated December 03, 2012(No PR262/2012-ISPR).

[40] The Express Tribune (Islamabad), December 23, 2012.

[41] Office of the Spokesman, Ministry of Foreign Affairs Pakistan, Press Release dated December 04, 2012(P.R.No.288/2012).

[42] The Express Tribune (Islamabad), December 4, 2012. (Brussels rendezvous: Nato assures Pakistan of       strategic alliance.

[43] The Nation (Islamabad), December 19, 2012. http://www.nation.com.pk/pakistan-news-newspaper-daily-english-online/editors-picks/19-Dec-2012/taliban-to-attend-paris-meeting( accessed on December, 19, 2012.

[44]Pakistan Observe (Islamabad), December 19, 2012.http://www.pakobserver.net/detailnews.asp?id=188464 (accessed on December, 24, 2012).