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Future prospects for AfPak

Ricard González
Journalist and political scientist
Ricard González

Ricard González

During the days following the September 11 attacks, as Al-Qaeda's responsibility was confirmed, the focus of all eyes in the White House and the Pentagon shifted to Afghanistan. Ten years later, the war in Afghanistan has become the longest in US history, and it is still unclear whether the world's leading power will emerge victorious. Among other things, this is because the Afghan conflict is a real conundrum that also involves its neighbors, Pakistan in particular. As a result, for linguistic reasons, policy towards these two countries is known in the US State Department as "AfPak."

After a decade of sending thousands of soldiers into Afghanistan and flooding the country with millions of dollars, most Americans are completely fed up with the conflict and are calling for a withdrawal without delay. Many voices within the Democratic Party, prompted by the stagnation of the economy and the unemployment rate, are wondering why the United States needs to invest around 120,000 million dollars a year in the construction of the Afghan nation state. With the coverage provided by the death of Bin Laden, whose capture was the initial grounds for the invasion, even much of the Republican Party supports leaving Afghanistan as soon as possible.

President Obama, who always has one eye on the opinion polls and political circumstances in the United States, has already designed a withdrawal plan, which formally began last July and will continue until late 2014. The plan is based on the one applied in Iraq, a country from which in theory Washington will have withdrawn all its troops at the end of this year. The idea is to gradually transfer control of security in the provinces to the Afghan national army, as its capacity improves.

Since he arrived in the White House, Obama has been aware of the impossibility of defeating the Taliban militarily, as their deep roots in Afghan politics and society means that a political settlement is necessary. Indeed, the military escalation ordered by Obama, with an increase from around 35,000 U.S. soldiers deployed to Afghanistan in 2008 to 100,000 today, is aimed at forcing the Taliban to the negotiating table in a position of weakness.

At present, the strategy does not seem to be paying off. The Taliban movement has indeed lost many of its leaders and middle ranking officers. However, it has not had too much difficulty in replacing them with new recruits. Furthermore, now that they are aware of the United States' timetable for withdrawal, the most obvious strategy is to wait until 2014 before making any movement, when the Afghan government will be in a weaker position.

Pakistan is a key player in this scenario, not only because it supported the Taliban movement in its early days, but also because it has never entirely lost contact with its leaders. For example, the United States believes that the network of the Haqqani tribe, which controls much of eastern Afghanistan, is directly on the payroll of the ISI, the powerful Pakistani intelligence service. Islamabad's support for the Taliban is motivated by its fear of being encircled by allies of India, its great enemy, which has very good relations with the Afghan President Hamid Karzai, and with the warlords of the Northern Alliance in general. By supporting the Taliban, Pakistan therefore aims to ensure that they will play a major role in Afghanistan's political future.

The difficult nature of the peace negotiations has been complicated even further since the operation that ended with the death of Bin Laden, as relations between Washington and Islamabad are now at the lowest point in decades. Nevertheless, within the marriage of convenience between the governments of the two countries, it seems unlikely that either will be asking for a divorce because they need each other too much, and neither of the parties wants Pakistan to fall into the hands of Islamists. It should be borne in mind that Pakistan is the only Muslim country that possesses the atomic bomb.

There are two possible scenarios for Afghanistan for 2015. One involves a national agreement between the Karzai regime and the Taliban leaders being reached, sponsored by the United States and Pakistan, according to which the fundamentalist movement would join the political system, possibly with changes made to the current Constitution.

The alternative scenario involves a continuation of the present war, but with the Afghan army taking over a greater responsibility from NATO, and the possible presence of a small Western military contingent in aid work. As a result, the big question is whether the Karzai regime is capable of standing on its own two feet. It is too early to answer this question, but one possible scenario would be the Balkanization of the country based on its ethnic distribution, as support for the Taliban is particularly strong in areas in which the majority of the population belong to the Pashtun ethnic group.