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US delays Afghanistan troop withdrawal; will others follow?

US delays Afghanistan troop withdrawal; will others follow?
Published 2 Apr 2015 

Being a former Washington insider has its benefits for Afghanistan's new president. Having lived, studied and worked in America throughout much of his career, President Ashraf Ghani was able to strike just the right tone, during last week's visit, between effusive expressions of gratitude and reassuring Washington lawmakers that Afghanistan would soon be self-reliant and not 'be lazy Uncle Joe.'

His message was clearly well received. Congress applauded him, laughed at his jokes and by the end of the week he had acquired most of the items on his wish list, including a slowdown of the American troop withdrawal, another aid package and critical funding for the Afghan National Security Forces into 2017.

During his previous career, Ghani penned a book called Fixing Failed States and since entering office he has been quietly urging Obama to adopt a more flexible approach to the draw-down of American forces so that Ghani can consolidate political and economic gains and assist the Army in staving off a Taliban resurgence.

Washington had previously committed to the departure of all troops by 2016 and had wanted to reduce the US presence to 5500 soldiers by the end of this year. The war-weary Administration has been eager to stick to this timetable. But most high-level officials have also been sympathetic to Ghani's pleas, not least to ensure that Afghanistan does not end up as the next Iraq, where the American military departed only to see Iraq's army collapse in the face of an Islamic State onslaught.

Ghani was able to find a compromise during his Washington visit. President Obama announced that 9800 troops would remain in Afghanistan until at least the end of this year to help ensure Afghan forces are better trained and equipped for the transition period. This decision will also allow the air bases in Kandahar and Jalalabad to remain open for counter-terrorism operations and drone warfare.

The White House made it clear that the 2016 deadline remains firmly in place, but that will likely eventually slip too. [fold]

Keeping the Taliban at bay is just one part of a highly complex transition process. The success of conflict resolution and state building usually come down to several factors: the ability of international forces to co-opt local patronage networks into competing peacefully for power, and obtaining support for the peace effort from regional actors. The presence of troops and ongoing international support will be integral to achieving these goals.

For Afghanistan, there have been some good indicators of progress. The mere fact that the country did not descend into civil war and Ashraf Ghani and his former political opponent Abdullah Abdullah were able to form a unity government is testament not just to US diplomacy but also to the resilience of the country today. But Afghanistan remains extremely fragile and even the basics have been difficult for the new administration to secure. In trying to address corruption, Ghani has fired more people than he has replaced, leaving many top government posts and governorships vacant. All of this continues to cost Afghanistan's leadership precious time and energy, delaying reforms.

Securing peace with the Taliban, a key to the success of the transition, remains elusive. And as the snow melts in the mountainous safe-haven regions of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, the Taliban is already gearing up for the spring offensive against an improved but still weak Afghan Army. Desertion is continuing to diminish the Army's ranks and financially it cannot exist without the US — the funding Obama promised to secure from Congress to support the Afghan National Security Forces through to 2017 comes to US$4-5 billion, estimated to be triple Afghanistan's own annual revenues.

And while the relationship with Pakistan has improved, there is still little indication that it and other powers will play a peaceful role in Afghanistan once the US exits.

While troops cannot remain in Afghanistan forever, withdrawal before Afghanistan is ready is simply not an option. Iraq and countless other conflicts are reminders that wars do not end on a set timetable; the likelihood of relapse remains high even when a fragile peace is secured.

What does all of this mean for America's allies? Australia has only just marked the official end of Operation Slipper on 20 March this year and the bulk of our troops were withdrawn from Oruzgan province at the end of 2013. Despite our formal withdrawal, some 400 Australian troops remain stationed in Afghanistan (mostly in Kandahar) in non-combat roles. This number was expected to fall by the end of this year. But even before Obama's announcement of a new timetable, the possibility of Australian troops remaining until 2016 was strong. In January this year, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop stated during her visit to Kabul that Ghani had made a 'very compelling case' for the extension of Western forces in Afghanistan.

Following Obama's announcement last week, it is inevitable that allies will be asked to re-examine their own deadlines and peer into their coffers once again to help support the unity government through the transition period. According to former US Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Ambassador James Dobbins, Obama's announcement last week could encourage the Germans and maybe the Italians to extend their presence in Afghanistan's north and west.

There are solid reasons why Australia's involvement in Afghanistan should end altogether. But it is unlikely we will deny an American request for an extension or even an increase in troops should it come around.

Photo courtesy of the White House.

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