9 December 2014


As per media reports, Barack Obama through a classified order signed in recent weeks has extended the combat role for US troops in Afghanistan for another year. The order authorises US troops through 2015 to carry out missions against militant groups, including the Afghan Taliban, that threaten US or the Afghan government interests. The new order doesn’t change the overall number of U.S. troops that will remain in Afghanistan but sanctions the use of US Air Force assets and drones to provide fire support to combat missions in Afghanistan. The article looks at this latest US decision in context of prevailing geopolitical situation in Afghanistan.

There is a Unity Government in place in Kabul with Ashraf Ghani as President and Abdullah Abdullah as CEO; and to its credit the arrangement continues to hold. A Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) between Afghanistan and the US, signed by Ghani upon taking office, has provided a legal framework for future US military presence in the country as does the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) for the NATO presence. Both the agreements have now been approved by the Afghan parliament.

NATO’s Operation Resolute Support will follow-on from ISAF in 2015 to train, advice and assist the Afghan security forces (ANSF). Accordingly from January next year 9,800 US troops and about 3,000 personnel from Germany, Italy and other member nations, will support ANSF as they take on the Taliban, in tandem with US counter-terrorism operations. Also from early 2015 onwards, civilian-military coordination will be under the leadership of a new NATO Senior Civilian Representative (SCR) Ismail Aramaz, currently Turkey’s Ambassador to Afghanistan.

There is growing Chinese interest in Afghanistan as the Asian giant has become increasingly concerned over the threat of extremism affecting its province of Xinjiang in addition to protecting potential economic investments. Beijing’s role in Afghanistan could include financial support, training of security forces and, possibly, a stronger role in negotiating with the Taliban through its proposed “peace and reconciliation forum” that would bring together representatives from Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and the Taliban.

In addition to the above, the Islamic State (IS) has threatened to take root in the region, the al-Qaeda is seeking to reinvent itself and the intensity and audacity of Taliban attacks (including suicide attacks) have increased. The US drone attacks have picked up, engaging a range of targets (Haqqani, al-Qaeda, Uzbek) which Pakistan’s military operation in Waziristan (Operation Zarb-e-Azb) against the Pakistani Taliban seems to have sidestepped. On the periphery, the Afghan president has visited Islamabad, after hops in Saudi Arabia and China, and the US had timely hosted the Pakistani Army Chief, possibly to negotiate the new rules of engagement.
Indian Military Aid

Former Afghan President Karzai in his recent visit to India had remarked that US was not keen for Afghanistan to accept military hardware from India. The comment is an open secret, yet indicative of the Af-Pak strategic byplay and deserves a comment. On the issue of military aid most analysts had seen through the Indian excuse (lame) that its weaponry was under licence production and supply to a third country (Afghanistan) would be a breach of its contractual obligations and that the political ramifications of such an aid would be more severe than its impact on the conflict zone. It was clear that US and NATO wanted to decide the calibre of weapons that the ANSF wielded as long as ISAF troops were on the Afghan soil. Second, what happened between the Iraqi Army and the IS in Iraq, was always a strong contingency that was playing on ISAF minds in Afghanistan too. Third was the Pakistani condition that the operational balance between the Pakistan army and the ANSF should not be altered. Lastly, the US wants to maintain a degree of fire-power parity between the Pakistan-supported Afghan Taliban and ANSF – restrict them to infantry weaponry, thereby obviate a situation wherein the Afghan Taliban demands high lethality weapons from its external backers or source it through its narco funds.
Why the Change of Heart?

As per media reports, Obama’s new set of orders were preceded by a “lengthy and heated debate” between “two often-competing imperatives”, one of which was Obama’s promise to end the war in Afghanistan and the other being US military’s demand to fulfil their remaining missions in the country, in the process nudge the history to be more kind to their endeavours of last 13 years.

There was also a demand that the future mission in Afghanistan be limited and focused solely on Al-Qaeda; possibly to leave space for Afghan reconciliation. It is possible this is the reason for the orders to come with a caveat that US will act only when the Taliban directly threaten the US and coalition forces or provide direct support to Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. US officials were quoted as, “We will no longer target belligerents solely because they are members of the Taliban.”

Some of the likely geo-strategic and operational reasons for US to prolong its combat mission could be; One, Obama has been encouraged by the initial actions taken by the Unity government in Afghanistan, hence deserving of continued US military support in its fight against the Taliban. And that Ghani has been more accepting of US moves in this regard than his predecessor, Hamid Karzai.

Two, the increasing indicators of IS presence in Af-Pak. The US interests have to be seen ( in addition to the poor timing of its exit from Iraq and now possibly Afghanistan) alongwith the ongoing military action against the IS in the Middle East. US would not like Af-Pak to play a role in easing the pressure being built-up on the IS. Also of importance would be the potential implications for the region of a possible Pak-IS link.

Three, the challenge posed by the China-Russia strategic cooperation. Afghanistan holds key vulnerabilities for them; Islamist fundamentalism for China and narcotics for Russia. Four, US pivot to Asia. Appraisal of the flagging progress on the “rebalance” to Asia and the Chinese response to it could have accorded a new relevance to US presence in Afghanistan. Fifth, issues which maybe strategically inconsequential yet operationally critical, such as revised scheduling of the drawdown or the decision on whether a larger force needs to stay in place longer than initially planned.

Sixth, is the internal US politics. The outcome of the recent elections and support for the opposing Republicans would have prodded Obama to take a more ‘muscular’ stand in the Middle East and Afghanistan, not for any other reason but to improve the electoral prospects of the next Democrat presidential nominee.

Lastly, India would like to believe it is in recognition of its security concerns.

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