How will Afghan forces cope without Nato support?

Afghan commandos sit on their vehicle after a clash with Taliban fighters

Analysts say the Taliban is growing in strength as Nato forces begin their withdrawal

LAST UPDATED AT 16:02 ON Fri 30 May 2014

President Obama has set out his plan to end America’s longest war, even as concerns grow about rising violence in Afghanistan.

The US president said this week that nearly 10,000 troops will stay beyond 2014, but by the end of 2016 the US would have only "a normal embassy presence" in the country.

But as foreign operations wind down and Afghanistan readies itself for the first change of leadership in over a decade, one crucial question remains – are Afghan security forces ready to face the Taliban alone?

Obama himself warned that “Afghanistan will not be a perfect place, and it is not America’s responsibility to make it one”, but the stakes remain high. Writing for The Conversation, Swati Parashar argues that “the gains that have been made in Afghanistan in the last 13 years threaten to be squandered if the withdrawal of foreign troops also marks the end of serious international engagement with the country”. One Kandahar district official puts it more succinctly: “Don’t abandon us, there could be anarchy.”

The ongoing transition
2014 is a year of major transition for Afghanistan. A new president will be announced in July, with the winner expected to lead Afghanistan into a new era of stability. That will depend heavily on whether the Afghan National Security Force (ANSF) can deal with the Taliban in the absence of foreign support.

US-led Nato troops have been gradually transferring security responsibilities to the ANSF since 2011, but from next year their involvement will be in an advisory capacity only.

Consequences of international withdrawal
After 13 years, 3,440 coalition casualties and costs in excess of $700bn, Western governments will be relieved that their military involvement in Afghanistan is coming to an end.

However, the International Crisis Group (ICG) says that “any euphoria” surrounding this withdrawal “should be tempered by a realistic assessment of the security challenges” the country now faces – chief among which is escalating Taliban violence.

“There are clear signs that armed opposition groups have gained ground in the areas where security responsibilities have been transferred to the ANSF," Oxfam said in January. “Security has deteriorated in many areas that were previously considered safe.”

The United Nations recorded an 11 per cent increase in attacks last summer, while the number of documented civilian casualties rose by 14 per cent in 2013 to 8,615 – the highest number since records began.

Other statistics confirm that the Taliban is growing in strength: insurgents inflicted almost as many casualties on Afghan forces as they suffered themselves in 2013. And as “the war enters a new phase increasingly defined by the conflict between insurgents and the ANSF”, the balance of power may be shifting in the insurgents’ favour, warns the ICG.

More optimistic analysts suggest that, provided international donors continue to foot the Afghan wage bill, the sheer number of ANSF personnel (around 370,000 today) should prove sufficient to counteract the Taliban insurgency.

Economic support is likely to prove crucial in a country in which foreign aid amounts to 71 per cent of GDP, but there are signs that it too is being scaled back. The US, by far Afghanistan’s biggest donor, cut aid from $4bn to $1.1bn between 2011 and 2014.

“Any further reductions would likely threaten the fragile security gains that have already been made in the country," says the International Rescue Committee.

How has the Taliban been able to survive?
In a word: Pakistan. According to the ICG, “despite all its rhetoric, Pakistan continues to provide a safe haven for Taliban insurgents and Pakistani support has transformed the Afghan border into the heartland of the insurgency”.

New York Times Journalist Carlotta Gall argues that the Pakistani military helped resurrect the Taliban resistance when it was at its lowest ebb. In her view: “Pakistan, not Afghanistan, has been the true enemy in the war against the Taliban”.

Before 2010, the focal point for Taliban activity was in Helmand and Kandahar, but as Nato troops took control of those provinces, Taliban insurgents retreated to the mountains on the Pakistani border. “Pakistani safe havens have stymied counterinsurgency efforts almost completely by providing protection in areas where US-led forces cannot operate,” reports the Council for Foreign Relations.

Pakistani officials have long denied such allegations. In December last year, Pakistan’s top security and foreign policy adviser, Sartaj Aziz said: “Although we have contacts with the Afghan Taliban we do not support them and we do not have control over them.”

Nevertheless many experts remain convinced that Pakistan continues to support the Taliban in Afghanistan [and beyond] in a misguided effort to counter India’s regional influence. “Pakistan, supposedly a US ally, has proven to be perfidious by driving Taliban violence in Afghanistan for its own cynical, hegemonic reasons”, says Carlotta Gall.

Writing in The Diplomat, Aziz Amin Ahmadzai suggests that Pakistan may come to regret its support for the Taliban.

"If Afghanistan’s government institutions remain weak, then a return to Taliban control seems inevitable," he says. "In that case, having seen off another superpower, the Taliban will be stronger than ever, a prospect that must alarm not only Afghanistan but also neighbours Pakistan and Iran."

That prospect, he suggests, might result in Pakistan putting pressure on the Taliban to enter meaningful talks, and the start of a real healing process for the country. · 

For further concise, balanced comment and analysis on the week's news, try The Week magazine. Subscribe today and get 6 issues completely free.