What is the post-election security situation in Afghanistan?
It is still generally unstable, experts say, despite a successful September 18 parliamentary poll, Afghanistan’s first free legislative election. Taliban threats to attack polling stations turned out to be unfounded, but experts warn that strikes against U.S. and NATO troops, civilian contractors, and other Afghans by Taliban and al-Qaeda forces are still a real and continuing threat. The United States had some 20,000 troops in Afghanistan for the elections, and another 13,000 soldiers from thirty-five countries are serving as part of the NATO International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). About 2,000 of the ISAF soldiers were temporarily deployed specifically for election security.
What security challenges has Afghanistan faced in recent months?
A steady drumbeat of attacks from members of the Taliban has left more than 1,200 people dead in Afghanistan in the last six months, the worst death toll since the U.S.-led invasion in October 2001. U.S. and Afghan forces have been fighting the Taliban-led insurgency since then, but “the [security] trend since the presidential election [in October 2004] has been downhill,” says Peter Tomsen, U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan from 1989-93. He says the Taliban have become increasingly sophisticated in their training and are mounting ever-larger and more complex attacks.
What is President Hamid Karzai’s position on the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan?
On September 20, Afghan President Karzai challenged the need for major military operations to continue in Afghanistan and criticized U.S. military air-strikes and searches of private homes as ineffective counterterrorism measures. He said U.S. troops should shift their focus from Afghanistan to neighboring countries, where he said stopping militants from crossing the border or blocking their money flow and supply chains would be more effective at preventing attacks. This challenge follows Karzai’s request in May to have more Afghan government control over the actions of U.S. troops; U.S. President George Bush denied his request.
What factors contribute to Karzai’s criticism?
Experts say some military practices, including raids and searches of homes by U.S. soldiers, are particularly offensive to Afghan tradition and culture. The home is the private domain of women and the family, says Colonel Christopher Langton, head of the defense analysis department at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. He says having foreign soldiers forcibly enter an Afghan’s home is equivalent to seeing them attack his wife. It is a deep personal insult to Afghans, one they are increasingly unwilling to tolerate. “Foreigners in Afghanistan, by definition, are not meant to be there very long,” Langton says. “If they behave in a way that’s against cultural instinct, it can lead to negative feelings.”
What are the plans for U.S. force withdrawal from Afghanistan?
A withdrawal timetable depends on several factors, including the strength of the insurgency, which may intensify if the Taliban follows through with its post-election threats to disrupt the Afghan government’s attempts at security reform and development. “If the Taliban continue their attacks at the level they’re maintaining at the moment, it will be quite hard for the United States to scale back its presence,” Langton says. U.S. and NATO officials are reportedly discussing the prospect of drawing down the current U.S. troop presence by 20 percent, or 4,000 soldiers, by spring 2006. Meanwhile, on September 13, the UN passed Resolution 1623 authorizing NATO forces to maintain their security presence in Afghanistan until October 2006.
Will European members of the ISAF force be willing to take over the U.S. combat role?
It’s unclear. Currently several countries, including Germany and France, want their soldiers to do only reconstruction and peacekeeping work in Afghanistan instead of other activities including combat operations, crowd control, and eradication of illegal poppy production. Experts say Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand will likely offer combat forces to NATO; it’s unclear, though, if these soldiers will be able to adequately replace the U.S. military capability. Langton says the United Kingdom is planning to increase its troop levels in Afghanistan from 2,500 to 9,000 by next March, when Britain takes over command of ISAF. Experts say that, even if the United States does withdraw some forces, it will continue to be very involved in the NATO mission. Langton predicts NATO will eventually combine ISAF with U.S. Operation Enduring Freedom—the umbrella mission covering U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan—to create a “NATO operation with a semi-autonomous U.S. operation in smaller parts of the country, with continuing U.S. logistical support and air power.”
What about the Afghan armed forces?
The fate of U.S. and ISAF troops in Afghanistan also depends very much on the performance of the fledgling Afghan national army and police. There are now some 25,000 members of the national army and roughly 30,000 policemen, but they are hampered by a serious lack of equipment and experience. The United States recently infused $800 million for police and military equipment as part of Washington’s Afghanistan reconstruction budget, aiding German efforts to train police officers. Another training program, which pairs U.S. military advisers with Afghan soldiers, is slowly producing battle-ready troops, experts say. “The army is doing quite well,” says Dennis Kux, senior Asia policy specialist at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He says it is adding about 1,000 soldiers per month to its ranks, and “by Afghan standards, they’re quite well-trained.” A recent disarmament program aimed at confiscating heavy weaponry from Afghanistan’s many warlords and their militias went well, Kux says, but the army and police are having a harder time eradicating the poppy crop and disarming irregular militias, which are not affiliated with particular warlords and thus are more difficult to control.
What is the role of Afghanistan’s warlords?
The warlords, most of whom command private armed militias, include former Northern Alliance commanders who worked closely with the U.S. coalition to defeat the Taliban. Some of the most powerful now play a role in Karzai's government, and many areas of Afghanistan, particularly in the provinces, are entirely under the warlords’ control. In some cases, these and other regional leaders in Afghanistan continue to receive U.S. financial and military support to hunt for terrorists. Warlords generally exercise a combination of political, economic, and military power outside of a constitutional or legal framework, according to a U.S. Institute of Peace definition.
Do the warlords maintain security in the areas they control?
To an extent, but their militias are accused of human-rights violations and widespread corruption, and infighting among them has cost many civilian lives. Drug smuggling and the collection of illegal tariffs are common. In many cases, only a small portion of legal revenue collected in the provinces is turned over to the central government.
Will Taliban forces fight through the winter?
In the past, fighting in Afghanistan has stopped through the harsh winters, when mountain passes used to travel are closed by heavy snow and inclement weather makes it difficult to fly helicopters. “The fighting season winds down in the winter,” Tomsen says. “The incidence of Taliban attacks will lessen” from December to about April or May, he says. But experts say Taliban members could still launch attacks in southern Afghanistan through the winter if they decide to remain there and in the central Afghan province of Oruzgan instead of returning to their bases and training camps in Pakistan. Their decision will largely determine ISAF’s strategy over the next few months.
What is Pakistan’s role?
Many of the most troublesome figures for the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan—including al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, his top deputies, and Taliban leaders—are thought to be hiding in the rugged border area between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Karzai’s government has repeatedly accused Pakistan of harboring and supporting these insurgents. Langton says “there is no limit” to the numbers of young men in training centers linked to madrassas in villages along the Afghan-Pakistan border and throughout Pakistan who are ready to be sent to fight coalition forces in Afghanistan. In fact, Tomsen says, these young people provide the “cannon fodder” for many conflicts, including Afghanistan, Iraq, and the militant Islamic struggle against the Indian army in Kashmir.
Is Pakistan cooperating in the hunt for militants?
Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has repeatedly insisted his government is doing all it can to help capture terrorists, including sending soldiers into Pakistan’s isolated, tribal Northwest Territories for the first time. But “Pakistan’s playing a double game,” Kux says. “They would like to see Afghanistan emerge peacefully, but they worry about Karzai’s links with India.” Afghanistan has recently made friendly moves toward India, Pakistan’s historical rival, including allowing Indian consulates—widely suspected to be staffed by Indian intelligence agents—in Jalalabad and Kandahar, a southern city close to the Pakistani border. Experts say Pakistan’s “insurance policy” in Afghanistan consists of offering illicit support to militias with enough capability to pressure the Kabul government on issues important to Pakistan. “This is a strategic decision,” Tomsen says. “It’s a multi-decades-old policy—that began in the 1970s—to train Islamic extremists.” Tomsen says Pakistan’s goals include weakening the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan so it eventually pulls out of both, and building a trained force of radical Islamists to use against India, if needed. Experts also say Musharraf has an eye on boosting his relationship with the United States, and his country’s efforts in Afghanistan are strategically directed at placating the United States while trying to achieve Pakistan’s other goals in the region.