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Sunday, 13 January 2013

All units: Pullback! The imminent failure of western influence in Afghanistan

Last week, Afghan President Hamid Karzai was on visit in Washington D.C., meeting President Barack Obama, just before the inauguration into Obama’s second term by next Sunday. The purpose of Karzai’s visit was rather obvious: it is about the future of foreign presence in Afghanistan.

His visit couldn’t be any more convenient for the Obama Administration. Just recently, the US has stated that a complete withdrawal of all US military out of Afghanistan is a possibility. Not a big surprise though, since a long-term withdrawal was a matter of course for the entire ISAF mandate. However, it now happens under the wrong scenario.

Great expectations not met
It is almost 12 years since the Taleban have been defeated in the Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF), although this victory was a temporary one rather than a permanent one. The western community initiated its ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) and OEF mission in great expectations to finally bring peace to a war-torn country and to significantly weakening the terrorist movement of the Taleban and al-Qaeda. The anticipation that a massive international presence in Afghanistan with all humanitarian and economic support for rebuilding efforts would lead to a sustainable stabilization of Afghanistan turned out to be a utopian fairy tale.

Although western lead-nations like the US and Germany were deeply committed to ensure centralized and forceful Afghan security, the present situation is far from the own anticipations; contemporary Afghanistan if not even remotely close to a state which can be described as “safe” or “stable”. On the contrary: Afghanistan is not any safer than it was right when NATO initiated all western action in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. The tragedy is, however, that the entire international community is doing everything possible to NOT improve the entire situation.

Leaving without results
Since its very beginning, the ISAF mandate has been made clear that the whole mission’s purpose was to establish strong Afghan security forces so that the central government in Kabul would be able to handle stability and safety on its own in the long-run, without foreign support. Evidently, an enormous effort was made to train and re-establish the Afghan National Army (ANA) and the Afghan National Police (ANP) – Germany was in charge for the police training. A vast number of NGOs, local military-civilian reconstruction teams (Provincial Reconstruction Teams =PRC), and a humongous amount of money, however, were apparently not enough to pull Afghanistan out of its constant war condition.

Afghanistan is an exceptional case, with more than 30 years of almost uninterrupted war going on it has been in the centre point of foreign intervention even before its independence in 1919. The United Kingdom was unable to control it, so were the Soviets in the 1980ies. Even brief periods of relative stability and prosperity where shaken by the ethnic clashes in the multi-ethnic society; clashes that are still present and made the entire Nation-Building efforts even more challenging.

Furthermore, this turmoil prevented any significant counter narcotic measures; the UN programme to minimize poppy production did not meet the own expectations. Afghanistan was and still is a leading narco-state, and local warlords use the profits from narco-trafficking to fund their own military and political weight in the respective region. Predictable, the international community’s achievements in combating poppy production or even trafficking is hardly measurable. As it turns out, poppy production is the only sector in the non-working Afghan economy that actually works.

Worst case scenario imminent
Basically, three exit scenarios have been outlined for the entire Afghanistan mission, of which the best case scenario (a democratic western oriented Afghanistan) has always been a utopian fairy tale – despite the euphoria after the “defeat” of the Taleban in late 2001.
The other two scenarios (either a notorious failed narco-state or a constantly dependent state by western support) more and more became likely to occur, and now it is obvious that in the long run, the worst case scenario will prevail. In short: Afghanistan is about to fall back into its pre-2001 failed state status, since the central government in Kabul is simply unable to cope with the imminent security challenges persistently deteriorating in the country. Furthermore, as soon as the last western security actors withdraw, Afghanistan will most likely “restored” as a terrorist haven for the Taleban and al-Qaeda. As a consequence, the global security situation will be the same as right after the 9/11 attacks, maybe even more severe.

Withdrawal = Unconditional Surrender
Everybody knew that Afghanistan would not be an easy job and everybody fears the consequences of failure of such a mammoth project. Now, everyone talks about a complete pullback (Germany will completely withdraw by 2014) and no one seems to realize the full scale of such an “escape”. A couple of years ago, the late German Minister of Defence, Peter Struck, stated that “Germany will be defended at the Hindu Kush”. This maybe sounds exaggerated, but at the end of the day it has dramatic consequences.

For NATO, Afghanistan is a prestige project and the biggest and longest “Out of Area” mission conducted so far. For the western defence alliance, the outcome of the entire Afghanistan mandate is extremely crucial and might decide on NATO’s political and military future – critical voices even state that NATO will stand and fall with Afghanistan.
The simple matter of fact is that the more the international community keeps talking and planning about a withdrawal, the more likely it’s going to happen. A withdrawal at this state of non-progress is a dead give-away of the imminent failure of the entire ISAF Mission. A withdrawal with the job not completed and with the enemy still on the move and significantly weakening the fragile Afghan structure is in fact equal to an unconditional surrender of NATO in Afghanistan.

The Graveyard
In the long-term, this step will have profound negative effects on NATO’s future role as a global security actor and as the only western security alliance, maybe even devastating ones leading to a potential collapse of NATO. As Milton Bearden had titled his Foreign Affairs article back in 2001 – right at the time the ISAF and OEF missions have been launched – Afghanistan is the Graveyard of Empires; this might also apply to NATO.

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