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January 09, 2013

The west must think twice before leaving Afghanistan
By Kurt Volker and George Robertson

After the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, the west abandoned Afghanistan. The result: civil war, Taliban rule, human rights catastrophes and an al-Qaeda sanctuary. Now, as we accelerate towards a major troop reduction and transfer of national leadership in 2014, we are on the verge of a repeat. Chuck Hagel, President Barack Obama's nominee as the new US defence secretary, should reflect on this as he prepares for his Senate confirmation hearings.

Many things are right about the west's approach. To name a few: transferring control to Afghanistan's military leadership; training Afghan security forces; targeted attacks on extremist fighters and their leaders; strengthening political institutions; preparing for elections in 2014; and supporting health and education for a new generation of Afghans.

At the same time, serious problems remain: corruption; lack of basic security in certain areas; continued Taliban attacks, including insider infiltrations; havens (if not active support) for extremist fighters in Pakistan; ineffective government institutions; and a rampant opium economy that fuels the insurgency. It is understandable that after 12 years, thousands of lives lost and billions of dollars spent, the US and its allies are tired. Hence the relentless drive to transfer responsibility in 2014.

The current plan is to continue significant troop reductions, promote political "dialogue" with the Taliban, and retain a minimal residual military presence after 2014 for training Afghans and striking terrorist targets. There is just one problem: what if it doesn't work?

Imagine the following scenario playing out next year. The US and other Nato forces are at their lowest level in more than five years. Though training continues, Afghans remain unable to control security in most of the south and east. Sporadic but sensational Taliban attacks continue in the north and in Kabul. The government security forces themselves are largely Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara, with little Pashtun support for the central government.

Continuing the scenario, President Hamid Karzai is completing his term of office, but the 2014 election campaign is deeply flawed and unlikely to produce a clear winner accepted by all sides.

The Taliban are at their strongest since being routed in 2002, with strategic depth in Pakistan and a long list of "collaborators" on their hit list. After a few demonstrative beheadings and public whippings of independent-minded women and girls who dared attend school, life in the south is growing darker. More extremist elements dream of revenge on the US.

And then, it happens. One spectacular event, and suddenly the house of cards comes down. The Taliban claims the south and east. The Kabul government teeters. International forces lack the capacity to stop the descent into civil war.

This may not be the scenario that plays out in Afghanistan in 2014. Certainly there is no reason why it has to be this way. But from the vantage point of early 2013, it seems increasingly possible. Perhaps even more importantly, none of this seems to be something the international community is planning to prevent. Ever since we first set a deadline for withdrawals - in December 2009 - our objective has shifted from achieving long-term success in Afghanistan to simply getting out.

At three other times during his administration, Mr Obama has quite sensibly conducted a review of US strategy in Afghanistan. The first took place in his first 60 days in office; the second, in mid-2009, confirmed the "surge" of troops but set a deadline of July 2011 for their withdrawal. The most recent review, conducted discreetly, led to a decision in summer 2010 to push the 2011 withdrawal deadline out until 2014. But a deadline it remained. The transition to Afghan leadership - which is essential no matter what - had become an instrument for enabling our withdrawal, rather than for securing Afghanistan's future.

To be fair, advocates of the deadline had serious arguments on their side. A deadline should persuade Afghans to take more responsibility on their own. The only future for the country is one that is Afghan-led. But more significant was the perception that the west would again abandon Afghanistan, and the Afghans had better accommodate themselves to whomever would wield power in the future. Sooner or later, the Taliban would be back.

And that places us squarely in January 2013. If there was ever a time for a strategy review, that time is now. Much of what we have accomplished is worthy, and much of what we are now doing would make sense, if it was not scheduled to come to an end before the gains made become self-sustaining.

What does not make sense is spending more money and lives in 2013, while risking the whole thing coming apart in 2014. If we want to avoid a civil war, major human rights abuses and the risk that Afghanistan again becomes a haven for exporting extremism, we need to start working out a Plan B - one that focuses on achieving substantive goals, not the timing of our exit.

The writers are a former US permanent representative to Nato and former Nato secretary-general


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