ISLAMABAD: US President Barack Obama’s decision to abandon plans to downsize military contingents in Afghanistan this year is being seen as a setback for reconciliation prospects.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani had requested President Obama to reconsider the withdrawal of 9,800 troopers as he believes the law and order situation is still too volatile for local forces to take over. Ghani cited the emergence of the self-proclaimed Islamic State as another threat to Afghanistan’s sovereignty. American forces will now inevitably stay put well into 2016.
The Taliban were quick to respond to the decision and called it “America’s announcement for the elongation of occupation” and expressed the desire to wage “holy Jihad against all forms of invasion”.
“America has achieved none of its manifest or latent objectives in Afghanistan during the past 13 years,” they retorted in a statement, adding a few thousand troops do not threaten their cause in any way. The Taliban said Afghans will continue to struggle until the very last foreign trooper exits their homeland.
Defence experts claim the Ghani administration did breathe a sigh of relief following Obama’s announcement during the Afghan President’s visit to the US. Former Afghan defence minister Shahnawaz Tanai declared it a blessing in disguise for Afghan security forces and law-enforcement agencies.
“They will have two additional years to train under the umbrella of foreign troops,” he told The Express Tribune, adding on the flipside it will also reinforce the resolve of the Taliban and add weight to their narrative of war. Tanai opined the Taliban will plausibly respond with all guns blazing, but doubted if they will be able to inflict substantial damage.
No holds barred
Obama’s announcement has come at a time when the Taliban’s traditional ‘spring offensive’ is only a few weeks away. Requesting anonymity, a Taliban official said fighters have started preparations to intensify attacks in the coming months. “They suffered heavy losses at our hands in the winter. We will come down even harder in the summer,” he claimed.
So it seems the Taliban still mean business and a few encouraging statements from President Ghani have done little to soften their stance. During his visit to the US, Ghani called the Taliban a “political opposition” and expressed desire to address their “genuine concerns”.
“Some of their grievances are legitimate. The brutal treatment of detainees has fuelled their emotions,” he noted during a discussion at the Institute of Peace, Washington, on Wednesday. The Afghan President also underscored Pakistan’s role in the peace process.
“The fundamental problem is peace between Pakistan and Afghanistan. For the past 13 years, we have upheld hostile positions against each other,” he maintained, declaring the realisation of the issue is a major breakthrough.
No hope in sight
Political analysts argue President Ghani and his Chief Executive Dr Abdullah Abdullah will not be able to orchestrate a positive-sum game in the given circumstances. They say a working relationship with the Taliban is only possible in the absence of American soldiers and interests.
Nazar Mutmaeen, an expert on Afghan security issues, said the Taliban will by no means become party to negotiations with a government that is in need of foreign patronage. “I believe the words and actions of President Ghani and Dr Abdullah are self-contradictory,” he told The Express Tribune from Kabul on Friday, adding the delay in American withdrawal will only further validate the stand of the Taliban.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 28th, 2015.