Afghanistan: A phantom endgame

The nature and future of Afghanistan’s war is now bound to international political calculation, not least the United States’s electoral timetable. By Paul Rogers.

The first months of 2010 have seen a large-scale military campaign by thousands of United States and Afghan forces to take control of the Taliban-dominated district around Marjah in the centre of Helmand province in southern Afghanistan, backed by efforts to persuade the local population to support the government and oppose Taliban influence (see “The Afghan whirlwind”, 26 February 2010).

This operation has been a prelude to a much larger plan to win control of the key city of Kandahar, to the east of Helmand, long seen as the base for the whole Taliban movement. The city represents a very different challenge to the rural environment of central Helmand, and will continue for several months.

(This article is cross-posted from

The operation may officially start in June 2010, though in one sense it has already begun. In recent weeks, US special-operations forces have been mounting raids to kill and detain suspected Taliban paramilitaries, with the aim of substantially weakening the movement in advance of the main attacks and preparing the ground for the later conventional campaign When the core operation gets underway, it is likely to feature a deployment of Afghan troops inside the city and American troops in the surrounding districts (see Thom Shanker, Helene Cooper & Richard A Oppel Jr, “Elite U.S. Units Step Up Effort in Afghan City Before Attack”, New York Times, 25 April 2010).

The special-forces raids have been accompanied by a large increase in the number of roadblocks and checkpoints across Kandahar, which provoke strong opposition from local residents. This in itself is bad news for the American-led campaign for the city, but more broadly the prospective siege of Kandahar faces two problems.

After the campaign
The first problem relates to the possible use of Afghan national army (ANA) troops inside Kandahar. From the viewpoint of the United States military it makes eminent sense to avoid deploying US troops within the heart of the city for any length of time, given the local population’s deep opposition to their presence. But there are severe doubts over the combat abilities and commitment of the Afghan troops, and in any event the fact that many of them come from other parts of Afghanistan could make them seem as almost as much foreign occupiers as their American patrons. The overall outcome, suggested too by the experience of earlier “joint operations” around Marjah, suggests that US troops will end up bearing the brunt of the fighting.

The second problem is that even were the coalition troops to establish control of Kandahar (or appear to), multiple precedent indicates that the Taliban and its allies merely go to ground and marshal their resources for a renewed assault. In Marjah, for example, Taliban supporters tend to be so indistinguishable from the population of the area that they have been able to claim compensation for deaths, injuries and damage to property from the US marines - which could then be used to acquire weapons and munitions (see “The AfPak war: failures of success”, 8 April 2010).

Indeed, the Marjah operation - Operation Moshtarak - was largely concluded by the beginning of March 2010, but the clear indications now are that Taliban militants have already re-established their authority in the area. Afghanistan’s deputy national-security adviser, Shaida Mohammad Abdali, tacitly admits the situation and its implications for the next campaign:

“We are still waiting to see the outcome in Marjah. If you are planning for operations in Kandahar, you must show success in Marjah. You have to be able to point to something. Now you don't have a good example to point to there.”

Homeward bound
The Kandahar operation may well last until the autumn and winter of 2010, a major urban test that will do much to determine the future of the entire US and coalition presence in Afghanistan. This is because the broader importance of Kandahar is political as much as military, for the forthcoming assault is taking place at a time when the political context of Nato/International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) operations in the country is moving towards a crucial point.

This emerged at a meeting of the twenty-eight Nato partners in Tallinn, Estonia, on 23 April 2010 (see Robert Burns, “Clinton and NATO plan West's Afghan exit”, Associated Press, 24 April 2010). The summit confirmed the intention to progressively transfer responsibility for security to Afghan forces by mid-2011. There may even be efforts to hand over security of one or two provinces to Afghan forces by the time of the next major Nato meeting in Lisbon in November 2010. Such a move would initially be largely symbolic, but the planned withdrawal of Dutch and Canadian contingents from Isaf over the next year or so would emphasise the importance of the longer-term transition that it was part of.

Indeed, Nato strategists are clear about their aim of securing a major withdrawal as soon as possible. The pervasive Taliban and militia influence in much of Afghanistan casts doubt on how feasible this is; Zahir Azimi of Afghanistan’s defence ministry says that it will take until 2014-15 for Afghan forces to take control of security across the country. What is clear, however, is that there is political momentum behind a timetable for withdrawal, not least in the United States - sufficient perhaps to override anxiety among some of Nato's European members over the Afghanistan predicament.

The Barack Obama administration, amid a sharpening of focus around domestic policy, appears intent on maintaining the current schedules for withdrawal both in Iraq and Afghanistan. In Iraq, the aim seems to be to have fewer than 20,000 troops in the country by mid-2011 - irrespective of persistent problems of political instability and general insecurity (see Peter Baker & Rod Nordland, “Obama Sticks to a Deadline in Iraq”, New York Times, 27 April 2010). In Afghanistan, the intention is to complete the current surge and maintain high troop levels until around mid-2011, then start making substantial troop reductions by winter 2011-12.

By early 2012, as the presidential-election campaign begins to intensify, Obama will thus be able to point to a substantial disengagement from Iraq and a progressive withdrawal from Afghanistan. It is possible that by then US interests will have been hit in further al-Qaida attacks - perhaps even leading to interventions in Yemen and Somalia; but the key political factor will be the impact of the withdrawal timetable on security in Afghanistan (and across the border in Pakistan).

The waiting game
Washington’s main consideration about the future of Afghanistan may thus be political (and electoral), but political calculations can have military consequences. Taliban strategists, for their part, can now anticipate that most foreign troops will leave Afghanistan within three years - a short time by their standards.

Moreover, this is at a time when even the US defence department acknowledges that the movement is getting stronger. A Pentagon report to Congress - details of which were released on 29 April 2010 - concludes that there is support or at least sympathy for the insurgency in ninety-two out of the 121 districts considered key to US interests, with popular support for the Karzai regime limited to twenty-nine districts (see Julian E Barnes, “Afghan Taliban getting stronger, Pentagon says”, Los Angeles Times, 29 April 2010).
The Los Angeles Times’s cites the report’s frank assessment of the Taliban challenge:

“[Its] abilities are expanding and its operations are increasing in sophistication, despite recent major offensives by U.S. forces in the militants' heartland. The report… portrays an insurgency with deep roots and broad reach, able to withstand repeated U.S. onslaughts and to re-establish its influence, while discrediting and undermining the country's western-backed government.”

In such circumstances there is little point in the Taliban negotiating - but also little point in fighting too hard. In fact the right thing to do from the movement’s standpoint is to avoid most conflict with Isaf troops, and remain ready to escalate their efforts and influence when the time comes. For that reason alone, there may actually be very little fighting in Kandahar later in 2010, after the initial spurt of combat. This might in turn fuel a politically convenient presumption of success in Washington that makes the military withdrawal even more palatable; but the realities on the ground would favour a later resurgence of Taliban power (see “Afghanistan: victory talk, regional tide”, 25 March 2010).

The fruits of war
The most immediate political consequence of the current military repositioning may relate less to Afghanistan itself than to India. New Delhi has invested heavily in efforts to expand its influence in Afghanistan: it has delivered around $1 billion in aid, many development programmes, and even training of the Afghan military (“see Kanchan Lakshman, “India in Afghanistan: a presence under pressure”, 11 July 2008). All this is anathema to India’s key rival Pakistan, which otherwise sees the prospect of a US withdrawal and a subsequent Taliban recovery as its opportunity to establish control in Islamabad’s “backyard”. Thus while the Pakistani army is combating militias in northwest Pakistan, including Pakistani elements of the Taliban, Pakistan’s powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and other agencies will be increasing their links with the Afghan Taliban.

The realities of blowback are evident here, as they are in Iraq where seven years of war in Iraq have resulted in increased Iranian influence (see “A tale of three cities: Washington, Baghdad, Tehran”, 22 April 2010). A decade and more of war in Afghanistan may now end with renewed, Pakistan-backed Taliban influence in the country. This is hardly what Washington - or New Delhi - wants to see happen. But the combination of an unwinnable war and an American electoral timetable creates its own inexorable force.

Paul Rogers is professor of peace studies at Bradford University and is openDemocracy’s international-security editor.