Turning Point Fast Approaching in Afghanistan

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Context

PoliTact recently issued an alert pointing out that the NATO and US exit strategy is in serious trouble after the Quran burning incident just a few weeks ago, in Bagram base, Afghanistan. The trust deficit between coalition forces and the Afghan people and security forces, is increasing at the worse possible time.

The blunders and security lapses that led to this Sunday’s killing of 16 civilians in Panjwai District of Kandahar province are events that will define the shape and pace of US-Afghan cooperation in the coming months and beyond 2014.

Analysis

The unfortunate killing of two US military personnel dissipated some of the public outrage and anti-American sentiment following the incineration of the Quran. Despite the pull-out of civilian advisors, military personal continued to work with their counterparts in various roles. Sources suggest that officials in the Ministry of Interior felt uncomfortably responsible for the events and were in a conciliatory frame of mind, eager to cooperate with the US – joint operations continued.

US military casualties will unlikely derail the plans to withdraw by 2014, as most indicators suggest that the deadline is one that the US military would like to see extended. However, the fallout from the killing of civilians in Panjawai will be long-lasting and potentially disastrous, with the main consequence being cooperation from Afghan partners less forthcoming over the next few months and Afghan support for US cooperation after 2014 diminished. On the other side, since the NATO Mohmand attack last November, Pakistan-US relations have remained strained as well, and cooperation between the two allies has dropped to minimal.

Around an hour after news of the killings surfaced, Ministry of Information spokesperson Sadiq Siddiqi, spoke to the international media warned that cooperation between his department and the US would be damaged as a result of the soldiers actions. More stridently, President Karzai, seemingly without hesitation, called the killings “an assassination… [that] cannot be forgiven”, making it clear that not only is he willing to publically criticise US forces and capitalise on anti-American feeling, but that he believes his political interests lie in distancing himself from the US.

This string of events comes two months before the signing of the strategic partnership agreement that will outline the role that the US and NATO will play during the transition period. Although Karzai committed himself to signing the agreement, he will now likely push harder for the transition process to be sped-up, including demands for early control of prisons such as the one at Bagram that is due to be handed over within the next six months.

In addition, Karzai will almost certainly condemn the use of Kill/Capture/Night Raids and again call for an end to the tactic that he believes results in a high number of civilian casualties -at least one resident of Panjawai likened the US soldier’s killings to Night Raids. However, Night Raids remain hotly disputed by NATO, who view the tactic as essential to disrupting and dismantling the Taliban and maintains civilian casualties during the operations are minimal.
Unfortunately, Karzai’s calls for a quicker transition and an end to Night Raids will only stall already slow progress towards a long term strategic plan and likely drag the Chicago Conference in May into intractable and repetitive discussions on these issues.

Even if Karzai is capitalizing on public opinion, but willing to negotiate in private, US room for error is now extremely thin. A significant backlash against NATO or US forces in coming months may force Karzai, and the Afghan government to throw in its lot with those calling for the departure of US and international forces and an end to cooperation post 2014.

Moreover, with the Presidential Elections in Afghanistan in early 2014, it will become politically expedient for candidates to run on an anti-US platform. It is more than likely that such a candidate, probably allied to Karzai, will win the election. With a fresh mandate and owing less to NATO than Karzai, the next president could prove a tough negotiator for the US.

The task at hand for NATO and the US government at the moment is deflating anti-American sentiment that if left to stew will eventually boil over. However, short-term indicators are not favourable.

Firstly, the spring temperatures will provide the conditions amenable for public demonstrations. Secondly, the number of variables that could instigate a fresh round of protests is beyond what the US military can hope to control; it may be another wayward soldier, an inaccurate drone strike or an uncouth statement by a Presidential candidate.

Another event like Sunday could ignite many days of rage and fatally damage the reputation of the US and incentivize politicians on all sides to quickly distance themselves from the coalition. If this happens, NATO will be left defending a population that neither wants it to do so nor appreciates the sacrifices it soldiers are making.

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