President Barack Obama and his Afghan counterpart,, announced that the American military mission in Afghanistan will shift this spring from a combat to a support role. In effect, US forces will be handing over the baton of security throughout Afghanistan to indigenous troops a few months earlier than expected.
The agreement on the future role of the US and its 66,000 troops still stationed and serving in Afghanistan was announced at the White House on Friday after one in a series of bilateral meetings between Obama and Karzai.
The spring rearrangement for the US army came months earlier than expected. Originally, the US military mission’s transition to a support role in training local troops in Afghanistan was expected to take place in summer. "Starting this spring, our troops will have a different mission: training, advising, assisting Afghan forces. It will be a historic moment and another step toward full Afghan sovereignty," Obama said.
Obama even promised to soon solicit the counsel of his top military advisers on executing troop withdrawals, at the same time reaffirming that the US transition out of the country would conclude by the end of 2014, when "this long war will come to a responsible end." He further asserted: "Make no mistake. Our path is clear and we are moving forward."
At the same time, Obama said, he felt assured. "Every day, Afghans are standing up to take control of their security, and as they do our troops will come home." As per the joint US-Afghan announcement, by the spring most unilateral US combat operations will come to an end, with forces pulling back their patrols of Afghan villages.
Elated, Karzai said: "I am very happy to hear from the president, as we also discussed earlier, that in spring this year the Afghan forces will be fully responsible for providing security to the Afghan people." The Afghan president also expressed his thanks to the US for the gains made in his country, and vowed to maintain them even after the planned pullout by the American troops.
However, Karzai made it clear he would not seek re-election in 2014. Currently there are more than 352,000 Afghans taking military training or on duty in police or army security roles. Obama and Karzai, whose relationship has been strained at times, also discussed the possibility of reconciliation with the Taliban. Both endorsed talks with the Taliban, suggesting the opening of a de-facto Taliban office in Doha, Qatar, to aid the ongoing talks.
Obama also stressed on the need for support from neighboring Pakistan, as its role is vital for war or peace. According to him, any reconciliation requires constructive support from across the region, including Pakistan. Obama went on to say that “a stable and secure Afghanistan is in the interest not only of the Afghan people and the United States, but of the entire region." The two presidents also discussed the possible roles for US troops in Afghanistan beyond 2014, the timeline set for only a residual US force to remain.
Obama did not specify how many troops would remain or be withdrawn. It was only earlier this week that the White House left open the possibility of withdrawal of all US forces from Afghanistan in 2014, after more than a decade of war. It is also the year when President Karzai will be stepping down from office, with elections to be held for his successor. So for Afghanistan it will, in effect, be a military, political and economic transition.
The basic purpose behind the American mission in Afghanistan has been to prevent it from becoming a safe haven for foreign terrorists and militants. It was in early 2010 that the actual counterinsurgency efforts by US and NATO military forces in Afghanistan began, and since then significant progress has been made in that direction.
The increase in the number of troops to 33,000 helped to impede the Taliban's rise. They were forced to run from their safe havens in the strategic provinces of Kandahar and Helmand. During this period the Afghan security forces received help, training and equipment. They were basically strengthened by the allied forces.
A hasty withdrawal now by the US would undermine all the gains made so far and also undo the achievements of the past decade. Moreover, if the US were to leave prematurely there is every chance of Afghanistan reverting to its old state and once again becoming a safe haven for militant groups.
It is therefore imperative for the US and Afghan governments to strengthen their relationship, restore their trust and confidence in each other and continue doing so. What Obama and Karzai have done now through the meetings is a step in the right direction.
But at this juncture it is important for Obama not to place much faith in the Taliban nor to have any negotiations with them. They are basically militants who thrive on violence and bloodshed. Nothing much can be achieved by talking to them, as their agenda is beyond doing any good for Afghanistan.
To date, the Taliban has not shown any readiness to renounce violence or terror, nor to take part in any sensible political process or discourse. If the US exits from Afghanistan without setting things in order there, it would only help the Taliban to regain their influence and carry out their bizarre diktats.
Another scary scenario, in the event of US leaving prematurely, is that it would create an environment whereby al-Qaida could regroup and revive in the region. Scarier is both the Taliban and al-Qaida getting together in the safe havens in the rocky Afghan terrain. The combination of the two groups would be both lethal and dangerous.
Such a scenario poses unimaginable risks to US national security, as there is every possibility of them plotting terror attacks on US soil or against any of its allies. The US must therefore strengthen its partnership with the Afghan authorities, take them on board as an ally and demonstrate unity of purpose with them.
Most important, the US needs to focus on having a strategic long-term partnership agreement with Kabul. The current understanding between Obama and Karzai to maintain a residual military force for training and counter-terrorism purposes is an excellent one and must be carried forward post-2014. It will go a long way in ensuring peace and stability in the region.
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