The end game is approaching fast in Afghanistan, and as the various NATO contingents pack their tents and quit the field, it is clear that no one will be staging a victory parade upon their return home.
As the proposed December pullout date for all foreign troops nears, and with no agreement yet approved to allow U.S. forces to remain past then, the political stakes continue to rise dramatically.
Following the elections in April, President Hamid Karzai will be out of office. After serving a 12-year stint, Karzai is constitutionally prohibited from seeking a third term.
Long viewed as an American puppet, Karzai is making great efforts in his final days in office to portray himself in a completely different light. In recent statements, he has chastised the American-led intervention for having achieved “nothing positive,” denounced NATO airstrikes resulting in civilian deaths as “war crimes” and held secret peace talks with the Taliban.
This is, of course, the same man who went apoplectic in the summer of 2012 when he became aware that the U.S. had been conducting similar dialogues with the Taliban in Qatar. Despite Karzai’s attempts to rebrand himself at this 11th hour, it will be regarded as far too little, far too late by an Afghan population that has long hated his corrupt regime.
What is worse is the fact that, while the West remains committed to staging the next presidential election in April, there is no apparent white knight candidate emerging for Afghan voters. Of the registered 11 presidential hopefuls, the majority are former warlords or, in the case of the technocrat Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, aligned with a vice-presidential candidate who is a warlord.
While Ahmadzai is a well-known Pashtun academic, his choice of running mate, Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, reflects the strong ethnic divide in Afghanistan. While hoping to bring Pashtun voters onside for Ahmadzai, an electoral victory would not be possible without Dostum’s Uzbek followers.
This is also true for former warlord Abdullah Abdullah, who allegedly finished second behind Karzai in the failed 2009 presidential election process. Despite his high profile and name recognition, Abdullah Abdullah is a Tajik and thus garners little support south of the Hindu Kush mountain range.
One of the dark horses in this year’s race is Abdul Rab Rasoul Sayyaf. It would prove an extreme embarrassment for the West should he be elected, as Sayyaf doesn’t just have close ties to militant jihadists, he was a close friend of none other than Osama bin Laden.
One has to wonder how the pro-war cheerleaders would try to spin that outcome. After 12 years of intervention, thousands of NATO soldiers killed, tens of thousands of Afghans killed, nearly a trillion dollars spent to contain terrorism in that country and despite our imposition of democratic reform, a terrorist could still get elected president.
Without a shining star upon which to pin their hopes, the West is left hoping for the least terrible election result. This would probably be former warlord-turned-defence minister Abdul Rahim Wardak, simply for the reason that he co-operated closely with American and NATO officials during his stint as a cabinet minister.
Whatever the result, the recent focus for NATO troops has been the training and equipping of an Afghan security force to prop up whoever gets elected. Since 2011, Canada has maintained a sizeable contingent of military trainers in Afghanistan, but that mission will come to an end next month.
In total, NATO expects to have trained and equipped a combined police and army force of over 300,000 before the final pullout. There is, of course, no way that the impoverished Afghan treasury can sustain a force that size, especially if it is involved in perpetual combat operations.
Afghan generals speculate that their forces will require another five to 10 years of mentoring and equipping before they can fully stand alone. What these Afghan officers don’t realize is there is no longer any Western appetite to fund such a long-term commitment.
We just need the Afghan army to hold the airfields until the last NATO plane has departed.