Omar Nessar, director of the Centre for Contemporary Afghan Studies
The international coalition led by the U.S. has waged an all-out war against an al-Qaeda network and the Taliban movement more than nine years. During this period, it has become an element of the complicated regional political architecture. Moreover, the presence of the American and NATO military contingent in Afghanistan and several neighbouring countries is being often considered a resource of security in the Central Asia.
However, the reliability of this resource has lately worried the political elite of the Central Asian countries. The reason here is not only the fact that no breakthrough has been achieved yet by the international coalition in its fight against Taliban. In 2009, President Barack Obama declared that the withdrawal of the American contingent from Afghanistan would be started in 2011. This decision proceeds from the fact that the American forces have been in Afghanistan too long, and the Afghan mission has been a huge political and economic burden to the U.S.
In fact, not all experts believe that the U.S. will really start withdrawing its forces from Afghanistan in 2011. Some western experts insist that Obama’s declaration is addressed first and foremost to the American community, which has been tired of the Afghanistan war, and in which the number of supporters for the pullout has been growing.
Notably, Barack Obama’s pledge to pullout the American contingent was hailed as a good move in Kabul. However, the Afghan authorities do not believe that the American forces will leave Afghanistan in a year. Several European countries, international organizations and some American commanders voiced against Obama’s “Evacuation Plan of 2011”.
Consequently, during a video-link with President Hamid Karzai in October, Barack Obama said that the responsibility for maintaining security in the country would be handed over to the Afghan national army only in 2014. This remark has prompted experts to insist that the American pullout from Afghanistan have already been postponed to 2014.
Nevertheless, the question of American pullout and consequently, the withdrawal of the entire western coalition from Afghanistan have made actual the search for a resource to maintain a system of regional security that has existed from 2002 to 2010. In short, the political elite and experts community in the Central Asian countries and other interested states should think about how to contain radical and destructive political groups in the region without the U.S. support.
In these circumstances, the Afghan national Army becomes a key element in the Afghan security system and the regional security system as a whole. The stability of Afghanistan and success in fight against Taliban and al-Qaeda depends on its number of troops and its combat readiness.
A large number of Afghan generals and politicians admits that at present, the Afghan national army and national police are incapable of defending the government and Afghan people from Taliban. Many experts insist that combat readiness of Afghan security forces and the level of their equipment will hardly improve by the summer of 2011.
Kabul’s western allies started rebuilding the national security forces and law enforcement structures soon after they ousted the Taliban regime in 2002. Since then, the new Afghan army has radically changed and the number of troops has increased several times, and is similar to NATO forces in technical equipment and training. Nevertheless, Afghan generals believe that it is incapable of defending the country from enemies, especially owing to the absence of heavy military hardware.
The Afghan authorities have urged the western countries in the past years to equip the national army with heavy military hardware, especially with warplanes and tanks. Eventually, in 2009, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who was tired of listening to rejections, threatened that he would purchase weapons from another place if the West fails to supply his country with tanks and aircraft. Despite such a threat, Kabul’s western sponsors are still not in a hurry to supply the Afghan security forces with heavy military hardware. Consequently, the Afghan army is similar to police rather than national armed forces.
In view of this, Afghan experts believe that the U.S. as a donor of the Afghan army and NATO are trying to find non-classical methods to upgrade combat readiness of the Afghan army. According to these analysts, Washington and Brussels have concluded a secret agreement with certain neighbouring countries of Afghanistan, which are not interested in forming a strong and full-fledged Afghan army, under which such an army will not appear in the country.
Most likely, the neighbouring countries remember-well of the 90s when hundreds of tanks and aircraft supplied by the Soviet Union fell into the hands of radicals when Taliban seized power in Kabul after the civil war. Only their efforts averted the further use of this military hardware by the Islamists. One can only guess how the situation in the region would have developed, if the neighbouring countries did not take away these weapons, especially military aircraft from Taliban.
On a background against today’s reports about the forthcoming withdrawal, experts are interested in how will be the Afghan army in the near future. How it will fulfill its commitments to defend the country and fight against terrorism? Perhaps, we can find answers to these questions by analyzing the events occurred along the Afghan-Pakistani border late September.
NATO helicopters hurried to support Afghan police after an attack launched on an Afghan check point in the Host province by the Taliban militants, who intruded into Afghanistan from Pakistan, and pursued them deep into the Pakistani territory. At least 30 militants were killed in retaliation. Later, NATO forces carried out several attacks on the Taliban positions. However, Islamabad expressed indignation only after the death of three Pakistani border guards near Kurram during one of these attacks.
A former Afghan officer who watched the joint operation by Afghan units together with NATO forces along the Afghan-Pakistani border spoke highly of the coordination between the two sides. This has prompted to suggest that the tactics of the Afghan national army will be based in the future on the use of the Afghan ground forces together with NATO air support in carrying out its operations.
Notably, attempts were made to form joint forces consisting of Afghan and western troops even before. For one, Afghan check points in the south of the country were strengthened by American and British servicemen in 2009. However, this method was not widely used after several incidents during which Taliban planted agents in the Afghan army launched attacks on foreign servicemen.
The pursuit of the Taliban militants by NATO helicopters deep into the Pakistani territory showed that the formation of joint Afghan and NATO ground forces is still a problem, but the coordination of the Afghan national army and NATO under the scheme of “Afghans on the ground, while foreigners in the air” provides good results. Most likely, this concept of carrying out operations will become the basis of the military doctrine of the future Afghan army, more precisely, Afghan-NATO army.
It is incorrect to say that the creation of precedent of Afghan-NATO coordination on ground and air that ignores the border in the region has pleased the neighbours of Afghanistan who are afraid of the appearance of a full-fledged and independent national army in Afghanistan. In response to the autumn operation using NATO helicopters in the Kurram region, Islamabad closed the transit corridor through which cargo shipments were basically supplied to NATO forces in Afghanistan.
If the Torham border crossing was closed a year ago, the NATO forces might have faced an extremely difficult situation. In 2009, the northern supply route was opened, and the U.S. and NATO broke Pakistan’s monopoly of supplying transit cargo. The northern route passing through Russia and the former Soviet republics in Central Asia is becoming more important for the western coalition.
However, as the northern supply network acquired greater significance, new threats and challenges to regional security have been triggered. An analysis of the developments in northern Afghanistan shows that the opening of the northern transit route has worsened the military and political situation in the northern Afghan provinces which have been calm before. For one, the Taliban movement drew attention to a key link of the northern route, the Kunduz province, soon after the agreement on transit was concluded. It stepped up its activity in the province and killed its governor Mohammad Omar in a suicide attack on the 8th pf October.
Earlier, as in the case of joint Afghan-NATO ground forces, the Taliban launched attacks on cargo supply infrastructure of the western forces in advance. Observers believe that the Taliban commanders are incapable of making such strategic plans and see the hands of foreign special services. The governor of Kunduz Mohammad Omar shared this opinion. According to him, Pakistani intelligence service, ISI, sanctioned the deployment of Taliban groups to this northern Afghan province in the spring of 2009. Interestingly, the Kunduz front is distinguished by the presence of a large number of mercenaries.
A large continent of American troops was for the first time deployed in the Kunduz province early this year to fight against Taliban militants. Earlier, the province was exclusively under the control of NATO’s German unit. However, the increase in the number of foreign forces has not stabilized the situation in northern Afghanistan, which is, on the contrary, worsening.
At present, many experts insist that the radical groups, which are using the Kunduz foothold in their interests, will move into the neighbouring countries in the future and destroy the regional security system that has existed from 2002 to 2010. This fear has been seriously perceived after a series of attacks by Islamists on law enforcement agencies of the neighbouring Tajikistan.
The Central Asian countries and their interested neighbours respond differently to the threat posed by the escalation of tension in northern Afghanistan. Some countries, including Afghanistan see the expansion of Taliban is backed by the Pakistani special services. Some others including Russia plans to put the blame on NATO for destabilizing the situation in northern Afghanistan and possible worsening of the situation in the former Soviet republics in Central Asia. For one, UN ambassador to the UN Vitaly Churkin criticized the strategy of the International Security Assistance Forces in Afghanistan in the late September and added that NATO activity aimed at stabilizing the situation the north of the country had been ineffective.
Several days after the statement by Vitaly Churkin, the Afghan authorities and NATO command said that they would focus on operations in the north of the country. Kabul and Brussels admit that there is a need to deploy additional troops to bring the situation in northern Afghanistan to normal. Clearly, NATO Command and the Afghan armed forces will handle this issue in the near future.
No matter how the efforts by the Afghan authorities and their western allies will turn out, clearly, the worsening situation in northern Afghanistan after the opening of the northern transit route has prompted the NATO forces to fight against the Taliban in two fronts, in the north and south of the country. One can hardly expect significant improvements in the security situation in Afghanistan in the near future because the Afghan authorities and their allies have to scatter their forces, which have until recently been insufficient even for fighting against the Taliban in the south.
In these circumstances, any one will hardly be bold enough to make forecasts about the developments in northern Afghanistan and assess their impact on the former Soviet republics in Central Asia. However, one thing is clear. The fight against the Taliban and other radical organizations in the region has entered to a new phase that demands for strengthening the military component in fighting against terrorism. The countries that are now drawing up a new strategy against possible spread of instability from the northern provinces of Afghanistan will inevitably need foreign military assistance. The question that remains open is who will supply this assistance and in what form.