UK DEFENCE – WHAT NEXT FOR AFGHANISTAN?
By Howard Wheeldon, Senior Strategist at BGC Partners
11 May 11. In his first public interview (to the Guardian newspaper) since becoming second in command of ISAF (International Security Assistance Forces) Afghanistan Lieutenant General James Bucknall makes a strong plea to NATO governments for more patience in the overall Afghanistan campaign. With the main 2011 fighting season having only just begun the Bucknall interview is timely. At issue here is the December 2014 date currently targeted for NATO to begin the long process of drawing down existing forces and the gradual handing back of military power to trained Afghan led forces under the control of the Kabul based government of President Hamid Karzai.
Warning that the “Taliban would [likely] come back at us as hard as they can” Lt Gen Bucknall reiterated that “long term commitment [to Afghanistan by ISAF forces] is absolutely key to our short term progress”. Usefully he went on to say that “until we have made it clear that the international community is not going to abandon Afghanistan in the near term, until that time, the insurgents will think that they can wait out the campaign”. Given that the current NATO intention is to reduce ISAF forces in Afghanistan to a bare minimum by end 2014 and given also the current unsatisfactory political climate in Kabul that is most probably just what insurgents will do. Conceding that while the military had [sometimes] been guilty of overpromising and under delivering Lt Gen Bucknall reflected that “we have only been playing this sensibly or properly with the right resources from last year”. In doing so he was putting down a marker that said at long last progress against the Taliban insurgency was at long last being made although he conceded a view that the task ahead was long and hard and could be achieved by the end of 2014.
Back in 2009 the then UK chief of the general staff [General Sir David Richards] suggested that British involvement in Afghanistan could last for the next thirty or forty years. In doing so General Richards (now Chief of the Defence Staff) was not actually suggesting that British troops would remain in situ (currently the total of British armed forces committed to ISAF number around 10,000 ‘troops’) but merely presenting the conceptual idea that both military and civilian involvement in support of the Afghanistan government in areas such as training, infrastructure and government development would be considerable requiring many years of professional involvement.
The death of al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden last week may or may not yet lead to an increase in the desire of the Taliban to fight. As yet we are in no position to judge this though we may view that his death exposes a more specific weakness that had not been anticipated. The weakness of Pakistan was exposed in its claim to have not known or at the very least, inability to admit any prior knowledge of Bin Laden’s whereabouts. This should and does matter to NATO member governments and particularly of course to ISAF commanders in Afghanistan. Indeed, it may yet create a full blown political crisis in Pakistan itself but almost certainly in my view it will place additional and unwelcome pressure on the Karzai administration in Kabul.
While most would probably agree that maintaining the status quo of NATO forces in Afghanistan is unsustainable it is surely impossible to concede to the idea that within just three and a half years from now that the Karzai government would have sufficient numbers of troops trained. In any case the current term of the Karzai administration lasts only until 2014 and without a formal political system based on opposing parties it is hard to envisage Hamid Karzai being given yet another term.
A tumultuous recent history that included invasion by USSR forces in 1979 and that left the country in economic, political and ecological ruin had also opened the doors to the T