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Hichem Karoui: Withdrawal from Afghanistan
June 18, 2011
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While Mr Barack Obama faces difficulties in Congress with his Libyan policy, another no less important debate seems getting the attention of the US political leaders over how many troops to withdraw from Afghanistan next month. This sounds to some observers even “a surrogate for a larger, more fractious debate” over the wisdom and strategy of the war itself.

Let’s recall that toward the end of his first year in office, Obama decided to send 30,000 more US troops to Afghanistan (in addition to the 70,000 already there), while announcing July 2011 as a deadline to start a pull-out and 2014 to shift control to Afghan security forces.

But in Afghanistan, the US seems trapped. If the goal of the war was initially to put an end to the Taliban regime and its support for terrorism, we should notice that the Americans have been brought to modestly negotiating a solution to the crisis of this country, in which the Taliban might be eventually key-actors. As to the fight against terrorism, the results are before our eyes.

Throughout spring 2011, the Taliban launched a major offensive, targeting government officials and buildings. The attacks took place in Kandahar with the Taliban claiming to take over the city. This inflamed insurgency, — fuelled by the recent killing of Osama Bin Laden — demonstrates how the Afghan government and Western forces are tilting at windmills of extremists groups, trapping the country in a spiral of violence.

So, why continue to play the blind while the strategy adopted so far, seems leading nowhere?

Hamid Karzai was installed as the president of the interim government in 2001 and other coalition forces joined the US and UK fight against insurgency attacks in Afghanistan, namely France, German and Italy supplying the most troops. In 2004 the first presidential elections were held, with Karzai winning 53 per cent of the votes, but with an extremely low voter turnout amid fears of election violence.

However, since 2006 there has been an increase in the levels of insurgency led by the Taliban who used mainly improvised explosives and suicide bomb attacks. A UN report has suggested that most of the civilian casualties in Afghanistan are the result of Taliban attacks. The coalition military occupation is now in its tenth year, with approximately 154,000 troops currently stationed there, and an estimated 10,000 people were killed in 2010 alone.

The coalition seems unable to make progress, unable to leave the country without making it, and unable to convince people (Afghans in the first place) that its presence is to make their life easier.

The findings of a US Task-Force report in November 2010 go also this way, stressing that after nine years of the Afghan war, the outcome of the struggles in the region are still uncertain and the stakes are high. “What happens in Afghanistan and Pakistan matters to Americans,” affirmed the report. It warned that “militants in Pakistan and Afghanistan pose a direct threat to the United States and its allies. They jeopardise the stability of Pakistan, a nuclear power that lives in an uneasy peace with its rival, India.”

What if there is no military solution to such a problem?

The Task Force report gave an answer to that question. It supported “the US investment in a long-term partnership with Pakistan, but underscores that it is only sustainable if Pakistan takes action against all terrorist organisations based on its soil.”

What if Pakistan does not make the same assessment of the situation, as the ongoing rift between Islamabad and Washington leaves us believe?

This too was not ignored in the report, which noted that these goals are best achieved through partnership with a stable Pakistani state, but that “the challenge of fighting regional terrorist networks is compounded by the fact that Pakistan draws distinctions between such groups.”

The Task Force chaired by former deputy secretary of state Richard L Armitage and former national security adviser Samuel R Berger, and directed by CFR Senior Fellow Daniel S Markey, whose objective was to make a practical assessment ahead of President Obama’s December 2011’s review of the US war effort in Afghanistan, did not plainly oppose the US strategy. It endorsed the current US effort in Afghanistan, including plans to begin a conditions-based military draw-down in July 2011. However, despite these efforts, the situation is still the same.

Observers hinted to the American frustration with the Afghan issue, which they think detecting in Mr Robert Gates’ speech in Brussels in which he warned that the US was exhausted by a decade of war and its own mounting budget deficits, and simply might not see Nato as worth supporting any longer. The US defence secretary criticised Nato for what he said were shortages of military spending and political will. The recent restrictions of European governments placed on their military participation in the Afghanistan war sounded putting Washington in an ordeal.

July 2011 will not witness the sole withdrawal of US troops. David Cameron is also expected to announce how many of Britain’s 9,500 troops are sent home in coming months. A debate is also going on in Whitehall on the pace and scale of the British withdrawal.

To be sure, this is not a popular war, neither in Europe nor in the USA, and much less in the Middle East. The military may take a different stance based on their own assessment of the situation on the ground; and they do know it is not any better after a decade of war, and they would still advise more troops and more funding to the war effort.

But in the USA, for example, in March 2011, a majority of voters, for the first time, appeared supporting an immediate withdrawal of all US troops from Afghanistan or the creation of a timetable to bring them all home within a year, according to a Rasmussen survey. “The combined total of 52% who want the troops home within a year is a nine-point jump from 43% last September. Just 37% felt that way in September 2009,” says the survey.

So, this is it. War is not an end in itself. “It is a continuation of policy by different ways,” says Clausewitz. Sometimes, though, it is a reminder of policy failure. When this is the case, victory is not granted.

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