January 30, 2013

Afghan Rubicon. What Will Happen to Afghanistan after the Withdrawal of Foreign Troops

In 1970s Afghanistan became one of the burning centers of Central Asia, where wars and armed conflicts never stop. Another important for this country stage in the development of the complicated situation has to become the year of 2014, when the international anti-terrorist operation, started in Afghanistan under aegis of the USA and NATO, will be officially completed.

Thus, by the end of the year a major part of the International Forces ISAF will have been withdrawn from the country’s territory, and their functions will be taken over by the local national force structures. This process can seriously effect the situation in Afghanistan, as well as the neighboring countries and regions.

Despite Afghanistan’s being geographically far from Ukraine, the Afghan problems for our country remains actual, due to both, the presence of our peacekeepers in Afghanistan (28 people in Kabul city and in provinces Gor, Ghazni and Kandahar), and the negative influence of the Afghan events on the Ukrainian interests in the Central-Asian region. So, let us give this question a closer look.

Thus, since 2001, despite all problems and under the leading role of the USA and NATO, the state structure of Afghanistan have been getting restored and developed. In particular, there have been established and are functioning central and local bodies of self-governing, very much has improved the security at the most of the territory (except Kabul and south-eastern regions of the country), a number of economic projects have been and are being realized (modernization of the transport infrastructure, development of natural resources, development of agriculture, included). Matters in the humanitarian sphere have also improved (hospitals, schools, institutions of culture, etc, have been opened).

Location of regional commands peacekeeping forces and provincial reconstruction teams
Location of regional commands of peacekeeping forces and provincial reconstruction teams

Of great importance is creation of power structures of Afghanistan (army and police included), the total number of which is up to 330 thousand people. At the present the Afghan power structures have taken over all the responsibility for security of nearly 70 % of the Afghan population. At this, the local population trusts the Afghan army and police more than foreign professionals, and this also helps the Afghan power structures.

The consent of a certain part of the moderate leaders of “Taliban” movement to negotiate on national reconciliation with the current power of Afghanistan can also be considered a positive aspect. This has started the process of local fighters’ returning to peaceful life.

In general, the mentioned above allowed to decrease the International Forces ISAF’s participation in combat actions against extremists (which, in its turn, decreased the losses among the staff of ISAF) and to begin measures for their reduction.

But a high level of corruption of representatives of state bodies of power, poverty of the population, lack of jobs, increase of drug production and smuggle can still be noticed in Afghanistan. Subversive and terrorist activity of the Islamic extremists, based in the regions along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border also continues.

At this, the activity of extremists is getting more and more active with the decrease of the number of International Forces (in particular, in 2012 the number of fighting incidents in the regions where Ukrainian peacekeepers are carrying out tasks, has grown by 30% , as compared with 2011). Due to the low level of professional training, the power structures of Afghanistan so far cannot completely be responsible for the security at the Afghan territory. According to American experts, at the present the army and police of Afghanistan are not capable of exercising the functions of guarding the objects and infrastructure, patrolling and supporting public peace. At the same time, they have limited abilities for fighting armed groups of extremists, which is explained by lack of heavy arms, aircrafts, means of intelligence and improper logistic support. Besides, serious problems are created by extremists when they manage to get into Afghan power structures.

Taking into the consideration the mentioned above facts, it is clear that withdrawal of the International Forces from Afghanistan (which are the core of the current peace and security in the country) will create serious problems; in particular, the security situation in the country will get sharpened. This, in its turn, will restart the armed confrontation between different clans, like it was after the Soviet troops had left Afghanistan’s territory. Due to such development of the events, the threat of a large scale civil war in Afghanistan, change of the Afghan power will increase and this will create the grounds for turning the country into a powerful center of terrorism and a source of regional extremism.

In particular, the events in Afghanistan can activate Islamic extremists in the countries of Central Asia, first of all, Tajikistan, Kirghizia, and Uzbekistan, as it already happened from 1990s and to the beginning of military operations of the USA and its allies at the Afghan territory. Due to sharpening of the situation in Central Asia, streams of refugees from the region will appear, volumes of drug and weapon smuggle will increase, and Europe and Ukraine will feel all negative trends from it all to the full.

Afghan-Pakistani tribal map
Afghan-Pakistani tribal map

A danger of spread of the Islamic extremism there exists also in Pakistan, where Islamists have quite strong positions and control of a part of the country’s territory (so-called “clan zones” in Balochistan, in the west of Pakistan not far from the border with Afghanistan). At this destabilization of the local situation and Islamization will have especially dangerous consequences for the regional and world security due to Pakistan’s having nuclear weapon.

Besides, withdrawal of the American troops (making the base of ISAF) from Afghanistan will weaken the USA’s positions in the Central and South-Central–Asian regions, which are strategically important for the USA from the point of view of access to natural resources, and also holding back Russia and China. At this, the USA’s influence in the region will go over to its geopolitical opponents, which will cause a lot of additional problems to the American interests. That is why the USA are trying to keep their military presence in Afghanistan after 2014. In particular, it is planned to leave 10 to 15 thousand American servicemen in the country, who will be responsible for supporting the actions of the power structures of Afghanistan, and for training the Afghan security forces.

At the base of such activity there is the Agreement on Strategic Partnership between the USA and Afghanistan, signed in May of 2012 for the term of 10 years and which suggests prolongation of the USA’s help to Afghanistan in security, economic, diplomatic spheres. True, maintenance of the American military bases in Afghanistan demands a proper legislation base, in particular, signing the Status of the Forces Agreement which will determine the conditions of the subunits of the USA AF’s staying at the Afghan territory.

In general, the current leaders of Afghanistan agree with the necessity of presence of American troops in the country as their main support. But there is a significant nuance in signing the mentioned above agreement: the USA demand that the American servicemen should be given immunity from legal processes in case if they have to commit a crime. This question is very important for both, President of Afghanistan H. Karzay, and for the Parliament of the country from the point of view of numerous cases of victims among the civil Afghan population due to mistaken strikes of ISAF subunits in the course of anti-terrorist operations.

This problem is very painful for the Afghan side in the situation of presidential elections that will take place in April 2013. Thus, prospects of signing the Status of the US Forces Agreement in Afghanistan had been discussed on the high state level during the visit of H. Karzay to the United States in January of the current year, but to no result.

Absence of guarantees of positive solving this question makes the USA look for other ways of securing its interests both, in Afghanistan, and in the whole region. In particular, the USA are activating the development of cooperation with India, which is one of the main USA’s allies in South-Eastern Asia. Thus, the USA have cancelled the restrictions on creation and testing of nuclear weapon by India. Their military-technological cooperation is also increasing. Besides, the USA are trying to widen India’s participation in Afghanistan’s restoration by involving it in realization of economic projects and training Afghan power structures.

Pakistan remains the USA’s main partner in the region, despite the complication of the Pakistan- USA relations in 2012 (due to the US armed forces anti-terrorist operations in the western regions of the country without having coordinated them with the leaders of the country and because of mistaken strikes on the positions of Pakistan troops). Thus, the armed forces of Pakistan are taking part in fighting against Talib groups and other Islamic extremists based at the Pakistan territory. Besides, it is via Pakistan that the main Southern route of logistics for International forces in Afghanistan (including the USA armed forces) goes.

In their turn, the USA are giving financial and military-technological support to Pakistan, which is very important for the Pakistani side in the complicated security situation in the region. At this, within the framework of improving the relations with Pakistan, the USA is mainly oriented to the military commanders of the country, whose positions are more pragmatic, than those of Pakistani political leaders.

Pipeline "Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India"
Pipeline "Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India"

Recently, taking into consideration Afghan problems, the USA have been activating their relations with Central Asian countries. In order to strengthen their positions in the region, to be able to use the air space and infrastructure of the countries of Central Asia for logistic supply of American troops and for their further withdrawal from the Afghan territory (so-called the Northern distribution network (NDN), as well as to help the economic development of Afghanistan, involving it in regional economic projects (in particular, in the development of the transport infrastructure of the region, more active frontier trade, as well as in the construction of the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-India gas pipeline).

For this purpose the USA invest joint economic projects in Central Asian countries (first of all in the energy sphere), and help in ensuring security. In particular, this regards to USA’s supplying the borders with arms, ammunition and equipment and training military staff (in training centers of Kirghizia, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan included). Besides, in coordination with the leaders of Tajikistan, special US Armed Forces subunits get involved in search and liquidation of terrorists in border regions of Afghanistan and Tajikistan.

U.S. air base at the airport "Manas" (Kyrgyzstan)
U.S. airbase at the airport "Manas" (Kyrgyzstan)

It is very important for the USA to be able to use the Kirghiz airbase “Manas” for ensuring cargo transits in favor of American troops in Afghanistan. Actually “Manas” occupies the central place in the system of the NDN of ISAF logistics, going through the territory of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan with further branching in the direction of the Baltic (through the territory of Russia) and Black Sea (through the Caspian Sea, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey) regions. Besides, one of the potential routes of the NDN includes the air space and transport infrastructure of Ukraine, which is officially confirmed by a special agreement between Ukraine and NATO.

According to American experts, realization of the mentioned above plans will allow to control the development of the situation in Afghanistan in general after the withdrawal of American troops from the country, which will testify to success of the USA’s policy on the Afghan direction.

Other, more pessimistic scenarious are being given by Russian specialists and their colleagues from countries of Central Asia. According to them, the withdrawal of the International Forces from Afghanistan will inevitably have negative consequences, which demands strengthening of the whole system of collective security of Russia and its allies in the region. Thus, at the present the struggle with outflows of non-stability from Afghanistan is defined as one of the main tasks of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, and is used by Russia for grounding its integration initiatives in the Central Asian region.