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After Iraq, President Obama’s next headache – Afghanistan

New Delhi: President Barrack Obama might have taken a high moral ground in announcing the delay in pulling out his forces from Afghanistan, but did he have any other option? Ironically, he will pass on the Afghanistan war to his successor what he inherited from his predecessor George W. Bush. President Obama today finds himself in a quagmire from where it would be very difficult for him to come out unscathed. Retaining the troops beyond his administration’s previously announced deadline for complete withdrawal does not appear to be a tactical shift in policy but the abject helplessness of the US. Its military policy has failed completely in Afghanistan as it did in Iraq. The war in Afghanistan is proving to be endless.

The grim reality is that the war-torn country is not yet ready to defend itself on its own. The early pullout of forces would have been self-defeating for the US which has invested so much in Afghanistan. Already the US has lost 2,300 of its men. And it has cost the US approximately 110 billion dollars since its forces first landed in Afghanistan in October 2001. And the job is not yet finished.

The Taliban’s brazen attempt to capture Kunduz last month highlights the vulnerability of the country falling into the hands of insurgents if the western forces leave stock, barrel and lock. That the Taliban insurgents could hold on to the city for a week before being pushed away by Afghan security forces with support from the US troops is a matter of concern. It shows that the progress made in the last 14 years since the US-led NATO forces dethroned the then Taliban government can easily be thwarted. The security situation in the country is still fragile and it has worsened in some pockets. Subsequent to President Obama’s announcement, NATO, too, has decided not to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan.

In fact, a recent United Nations report has said that the security situation in Afghanistan remains volatile, as civilian casualties are on the rise and the peace process between the Afghan government and the Taliban is quite shaky. Despite some security gains last year, the UN recorded 22,051 security incidents in 2014, which surpassed those of 2013 by 10 percent. Of those incidents, 68 percent were recorded in southern, southeastern and eastern regions, with Nangarhar province being the most volatile and recording 13 percent of the incidents. The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan has also expressed concern over the rise in civilian deaths in the South Asian nation. It documented over 10,000 civilian casualties in 2014, the highest annual number of civilian casualties recorded since the UN body began systematic monitoring in 2009.

The recent surge in violence is a cause for concern in the backdrop of looming Islamic State threat in Afghanistan. The principal security challenges from various insurgent groups remain. The Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani network, the armed faction of Hezb-e Islami Gulbuddin, Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan affiliates are all active and have not been defanged. Therefore, it would be naïve to imagine that Afghan forces can secure Afghanistan without outside help.

The decision by President Obama to keep at least 9,800 troops in the Central Asian nation through most of 2016, with at least 5,500 of them till the end of next year, must reassure Afghan leadership that the US is not walking away from the situation that remains uncertain. But can the US afford to keep its forces forever? There is need to find a permanent solution. All stakeholders must ensure that Afghanistan is not used as safe haven for terrorists to launch attacks.

Here in comes the dubious role of Pakistan in the region which has been sheltering terrorists in its backyard. It is an open secret that Pakistan does not want a stable government in Afghanistan. In fact, Pakistan was one of the very few countries to recognize the illegitimate rule of Taliban. Afghans are equally wary of Pakistan. Only recently did Afghan President Ashraf Ghani accuse Pakistan of wavering in its cooperation in the peace talks. It should be recalled that despite the first round of successful peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban which was hosted by Pakistan, there has not been any forward movement. Complexities have arisen since the announcement of the death of longtime leader Mullah Mohammed Omar. Taliban’s new leader Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour does not command support of all the factions. The resurgence of Islamic State with backing from some factions of Taliban bodes ill for Afghanistan.

It is hard to believe that Pakistan will change its Afghan policy because both the military and civilian establishments consider the Taliban as an important ally in their scheme of things to counter Indian presence in Afghanistan. While India has been involved in rebuilding of Afghanistan, earning goodwill of the locals, Pakistan has been contributing to the country’s destruction by supporting the Taliban.

President Obama should find meaningful and political ways to end the war. He should use his planned meeting with Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif today by talking tough with him. Pakistan should be told in no uncertain terms that it can’t take the international community for a ride by pocketing billions of dollars in international aid and supporting the Taliban simultaneously. Pakistan needs to answer. It should match its words with action.

Vikas Khanna is a senior journalist and the views expressed in the above article are personal (ANI)