The US announcement that it will start withdrawing troops from Afghanistan is causing consternation in Kabul.
Speaking at the Pentagon on January 4, US President George Bush confirmed that American forces in Afghanistan would be reduced from 19,000 to about 16,500 during 2006. Over the same timeframe US troop levels in Iraq will decline from 17 to 15 combat brigades.
Many Afghans are interpreting Bush's comments as laying the groundwork for a complete pull-out of American troops in Afghanistan, despite repeated assurances made by US officials that Washington "will never abandon" Kabul. In private conversations, senior Afghan officials are using harsh language in criticizing the Bush administration's decision. They see the withdrawal as driven by US domestic factors, namely the Bush administration's desire to bolster the Republican Party's prospects in congressional elections in late 2006. Republicans have been weakened by a widening corruption probe in Washington. Bringing troops home from Iraq and Afghanistan could help revive the Republican Party's image.
While US forces appear to be viewed as an unwelcome presence by a growing number of Iraqis, the majority of Afghans still consider American forces as a security asset. They also view the American military presence as a tangible sign that the international community remains committed to assisting Afghanistan's reconstruction. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
US officials suggest that NATO is capable of filing any security gap created by the departure of American troops. However, many Afghans consider NATO as a hesitant and reluctant substitute for US forces. While the 9,000 NATO forces already in Afghanistan are carrying out peace-keeping functions, most NATO's members are refusing to allow their troops to conduct combat operations aimed at containing the Taliban insurgency. So far, only Britain, Australia and Canada have expressed willingness to allow their troops to engage in combat operations.
For the time being, US forces are planning to remain in eastern Afghanistan, a mountainous region that Taliban insurgents use to infiltrate the country from Pakistan. The area has witnessed heavy fighting in recent months. Eventually, Washington would like to pull US troops out of eastern Afghanistan, with NATO forces taking their place.
Over the past year, Taliban militants have posed an increasing security threat to Afghan President Hamid Karzai's administration. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Insurgent attacks claimed the lives of about 1,500 Afghans and 90 Americans troops in 2005. In addition, Taliban-al Qaeda forces in 2005 began emulating tactics used by Islamic radicals in Iraq, namely the use of suicide bombers. On January 5, at least 10 people were killed when a Taliban suicide bomber detonated himself in Tarin Kot, capital of southern Uruzgen Province.
Local political analysts say that Afghanistan's stabilization hopes will depend on the government's ability to respond to the Taliban insurgency. At present, the Afghan government remains heavily dependent on NATO and US forces for security. On December 8, NATO announced that it would deploy 6,000 troops, including 4,000 British soldiers, in southern Afghanistan, where Taliban militants are most active. The announcement was undermined the next day, when Dutch officials revealed they were having second thoughts about the deployment of a 1,000-strong Dutch contingent. Eventually, officials in the Hague said the deployment would proceed, provided that the Dutch parliament ratified the move. Dutch opposition parties are opposed to deployment.
A British army reconnaissance group in Helmand a southern province in which the Taliban is most active, and which is a narcotics trafficking center -- reports that the levels of Islamic radical violence, along with drug-related criminality, are far worse than previously believed. British troops are expected to deploy in the region in the spring.
The US drawdown comes at an inopportune time for Afghanistan, when the country's new political institutions are struggling to establish themselves following the completion of a four-year transition process. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. On December 21, the new Afghan parliament elected opposition leader Yunus Qanuni as its speaker. Afghanistan now has an elected president, a democratic constitution achieved through national consensus, an upper and lower house of parliament elected in a largely fair process and elected governing councils in all 34 provinces.
In his January 4 comments, Bush painted an upbeat picture of Afghan political conditions. "We've made steady progress on the road to democracy," Bush insisted. "Karzai got elected; there's a sitting parliament. It's amazing how far Afghanistan has come from the days of the Taliban [1996-2001]." While new political institutions exist, many political experts express concern about their ability to function effectively. For example, up to 40 percent of Afghan MPs reportedly have links to warlords and drug traffickers who have helped fuel the country's vicious cycle of violence for over two decades. Bush insisted that the "the international community is stepping up." However, many Afghans believe the international community has not fulfilled promises of assistance. Indeed, Kabul is experiencing a severe winter, featuring sporadic electricity supplies. In addition, Karzai's administration has seemed reluctant to take politically difficult steps to curb corruption and other problems hampering reconstruction.
Ahmed Rashid is a Pakistan-based journalist and author of the book "Taliban: Militant Islam and Fundamentalism in Central Asia."