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Friday 18 Aug 2017 | 20:58 | SYDNEY
Friday 18 Aug 2017 | 20:58 | SYDNEY

Afghanistan — and the winner is ... 2014

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26 July 2010 08:40

Yes, it's now official. Afghan security primacy in four years' time and the west can turn off the lights (or at least dim them) and leave. For all the talk of 'conditions-based' withdrawal, a timeline had to be set at some stage for everybody's sake. And it's not as if the West hadn't been signaling its intent for some time.  The Dutch are to withdraw this year, the Canadians next, while the newly-elected UK prime minister said that he wanted all British troops out by 2015. Even Australia tentatively outlined a timetable of between two and four years by which time it would be able to leave Oruzgun in Afghan hands.  So 2014 certainly ticks the UK and Australian boxes.

But realistically we are all but support players to the US, the main act in the Afghan security play.  And here the Obama Administration has been doing some shaping operations of its own. Having publicly stated that the US will begin its withdrawal of its forces in a year's time, President Obama was always going to lay himself open to accusations of a precipitous withdrawal timetable, leaving before the job was done.

So the Administration has cleverly been defining what its definition of 'getting the job done' means. If the measure of success was that defined by President Bush as recently as four years ago,  with Afghanistan following Iraq as the beacons of West Asian democratic flowering, then forces would still be there for decades with no guarantee of success. 

The present administration has lowered the bar for mission success to a more achievable level. This was undoubtedly the main reason for the rare public interview last month by CIA head Leon Panetta when he observed that there were only 50-100 al-Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan, evidence if any more were needed that the war long ago morphed from a fight against the foreign al- Qaeda into a contest with the local Taliban. More importantly he also gave his view of what constituted a successful conclusion to the Afghanistan campaign as 'having a country that is stable enough to ensure that there is no safe haven for al-Qaeda or for a militant Taliban that welcomes Al Qaida.'

After eight years of fighting, and with the knowledge that they are a permanent presence in the country, it is pretty unlikely that that the Taliban are going to be persuaded simply by force of arms to deny al-Qaeda freedom of action. Panetta's nomination of a 'stable enough' Afghanistan and a 'militant' Taliban speaks volumes as to what will be acceptable to the US. Forget grand nation-building and battlefield victory — an Afghan government that is not completely dysfunctional and a Taliban that understands the geographical (and human rights) limits to its militant view of Islam will suffice. Reconciliation with 'acceptable' Taliban is a key element of the exit strategy and is already being pursued.

It is a sure bet that the West will face criticism for leaving too early in four years' time, but voting publics are becoming increasingly disenchanted at the cost of the Afghanistan campaign and a line has to be drawn at some stage. Steven Walt posed an interesting question in a recent blog about the long-term strategic consequences of withdrawing forces from conflicts too early, and the same question could be posed about Afghanistan.  When is too early, and would the dire strategic consequences predicted by some of leaving Afghanistan too early actually materialise? Or would staying too long cost too much for little permanent reward?

If the price for an Afghanistan that no longer harbours training grounds or provides freedom of action for al-Qaeda militants or others targeting western interests is to leave a country where corruption remains endemic, the Kabul government's writ extends only loosely to many regional areas, medieval Islamic social policy remains in pockets of the country and the poppy trade continues to flourish, would the west accept that the job was done? At this stage of the campaign I think we would.

Photo by Flickr user United States Marine Corps Official Page, used under a Creative Commons licence. 

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