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Update No: 120 - (26/02/12)

Uncle Sam means business this time
During February the Afghan government must have started getting the sense that American disengagement is not a bluff and that the Obama Administration means business. First Washington has proposed a reduction in the level of Afghan security forces from the currently planned 352,000 to 230,000 in the near future, primarily to contain costs. The Afghan security ministries were demanding an expansion to 400-500,000, so the news elicited panicked responses by the Afghans. The lack of enthusiasm among NATO countries for taking up the Afghan security forces funding bill themselves, means that Washington is now planning to adapt for a level of investment of about US$4 billion per year, which does not compare favourably to the current almost US$12 billion. The ministers of defence and finance have complained publicly about the new plan and hinted that the regime would not survive on a reduced aid flow.

The other news which must have caused some nervousness in Kabul is Defence Secretary Panetta’s announcement that US troops will stop participating in combat operations between mid and end 2013, that is 12-18 months earlier than originally planned. Even Washington’s NATO partners were surprised by the announcement, which they had expected would come out of the forthcoming May NATO summit in Chicago. It looked bad a few weeks ago, when French President Sarkozy announced that the French Army would withdraw its combat contingent in 2013 rather than in 2014, but now it is the Americans saying (almost) the same… In fact Washington has not clarified what the pace of its withdrawal will be after August 2012, when the current withdrawal of 33,000 troops is scheduled to end, but few doubt that further withdrawals will be announced before the American elections. Finally, the Americans are insisting in having direct talks with the Taliban despite Karzai’s objections; Special Envoy Grossman met Taliban representatives in Qatar in January. The suspicion that the Americans are considering a direct deal that cuts off Karzai, must be strengthening every day, the more so as the Taliban have rejected Karzai’s negotiating opening and continue to dismiss him and his regime as ‘puppets’.

Pakistan rehabilitated
If the predicament of Karzai’s regime seems to be getting more and more complicated, at least in recent weeks a new convergence with Pakistan has been noticed. It might be dictated by despair, but Kabul and Islamabad both oppose the opening of a Taliban office in Qatar, are deeply hostile to direct US-Taliban talks and are looking for an alternative strategy. The two governments have tried to kick-start an alternative negotiating channel in Saudi Arabia, but the Pakistanis have then declared that they could not get the Taliban to join in. It might be a negotiating technique, aimed at extracting further concessions from Kabul, or it might be true that the Taliban are trying to emancipate themselves from Pakistani patronage; in either case things do not look good for Kabul.

Did the Taliban go too far?
The American approach is in fact allowing Washington to regain some initiative in the region; it has wrong-footed the other main players. Even the Taliban, initially very happy to talk to the Americans, are beginning to experience troubles within the ranks: the fighters inside Afghanistan are puzzled by the confirmation that talks with the Americans are going on and wonder what their political leadership is up to. This difficulty is highlighted by the fact that the Taliban have not yet been able to address the one remaining condition to be met for the opening of the office:denouncing Al Qaida. Even if the latter’s role in Afghanistan is now small and declining, symbolically a move of that kind would be seen as a betrayal of the Taliban’s own principles, particularly if it is not phrased carefully. Morale, however, remains high within the Taliban’s ranks. They believe that as the withdrawal proceeds, they will swallow up the Afghan security forces easily, as confirmed also by a NATO intelligence document leaked to the press.


 

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