The military situation is as good as its going to get. Its time for the diplomats to step in.
This week General Joseph F. Dunford, the man charged with closing down NATO’s mission in Afghanistan, suggested that talks with the Taliban should be part of the process of ending Western military operations. Formal combat operations in Afghanistan are due to end in 2014, and countless units are already leaving the country. Last year, 23,000 American troops withdrew from Afghanistan.
There are currently around 60,000 American troops making up the majority of the 100,000-strong International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). At the beginning of next year, Barack Obama has pledged to reduce numbers to between 10,000 and 20,000. American troop numbers peaked at over 100,000 in 2011. The UK currently has around 9,000 troops in Afghanistan, with plans to bring 4,000 home this summer.
The primary challenge facing NATO operations in Afghanistan is ensuring that Afghan security forces will be capable of holding the country together post-2014. Gen. Dunford stressed that the transition to Afghan-led security was key to the success of the overall mission. The survivability of NATO’s achievements over the last decade would soon depend on Afghans, he said.
The Afghan National Army now has around 180,000 trained troops, and police forces have similar numbers. While the Afghan authorities have pointed to the security forces’ encouraging response to Taliban attacks in 2011 and 2012, many Western observers are still sceptical. High levels of corruption have been reported within the Afghan security services, especially the police.
Public outcry in the US and UK has been provoked by incidents of “green-on-blue” attacks on ISAF personnel by Afghans they were training or commanding. Last year, over 60 NATO troops were killed in this way.
As the final withdrawal date approaches, it is too early to assess whether the NATO operations in Afghanistan have been a success. The litmus test for success or failure has been constantly shifting as the war has raged on.
There has been some progress in ensuring that the country does not become a failed state: a potential haven for al-Qaeda or other terrorist organisation. And while it is unclear how many Afghans genuinely support ISAF’s efforts, a majority are now optimistic about the country’s future. However, the resurgence of the Taliban and ISAF’s inability to defeat them militarily has prolonged the conflict. Sources estimate that there could be as many as 25,000 Taliban fighters in Afghanistan, after being all but defeated a decade ago.
The security situation in Afghanistan is still severe. Apart from a brief period in 2012, civilian casualties have risen year on year since 2008. Over 3,200 NATO troops have been killed since the conflict began. US troops have borne the brunt of this figure, with 2,220 casualties since 2001. The British death toll is 444.
Gen. Dunford’s recent suggestion has not come out of the blue. Last year, Pakistani authorities agreed to release some Taliban prisoners, and its infamous and secretive intelligence agency, the ISI, also pledged to encourage its Taliban contacts to begin dialogue with Kabul and the West. Indeed, the willingness of the ISI to take a tougher line on the Taliban has shown that progress still depends greatly on the Taliban’s Pakistani sponsors, within and without state institutions. There is also increasing evidence that internal divisions within the Taliban – between hardliners in favour of continuing the war and moderates seeking to end it – may open up the possibility for future rounds of diplomacy.
The general strategic outlook in Afghanistan is far from ideal, and many fear what will happen to the country after 2014. It therefore makes sense to advocate for direct talks with the Taliban. It is now clearer than ever that there is no military solution to the country’s ills, and policymakers – military or political – need to start examining more sophisticated options.
Afghanistan is due to hold presidential elections next year. Hamid Karzai, the current president, is prohibited from running again, providing what many would regard as a genuine opportunity for fresh leadership in Kabul and for the entire situation in the country.
Were the new president to be on different terms with the Taliban than the current leadership, with NATO having already laid some groundwork, the potential for improving the situation in Afghanistan is significant.
It is undeniable that much has been achieved militarily in Afghanistan, but the blunt object has run its course. It’s time to start talking.
Jak Allen is a student at the University of Kent. A geek of the U.S. Supreme Court and forever wanting to add an historian’s touch to affairs of the present.