x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Doubt over 2014 deadline for Afghan withdrawal

A plan that could see most foreign troops leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014 has been greeted with caution in the capital Kabul.

KABUL // A plan that could see most foreign troops leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014 has been greeted with caution in the capital Kabul, where the bitter aftermath of the withdrawal of the Soviet Army more than two decades ago is still fresh in some people's minds.

Nato formally agreed, on Saturday, to begin handing over security responsibilities to local forces here within months. The transition is due to be complete inside four years, when any soldiers remaining are expected to have training roles.

Member states have been at pains to insist this plan does not represent a rush for the exit, but the strategy, and the growing attempts to emphasise that significant progress is being made, has left many Afghans wondering what will happen next.

Those worries were compounded when Nato's senior civilian representative to the country and the former UK ambassador to Kabul, Mark Sedwill, was quoted yesterday by the BBC as saying that children in Kabul were "probably safer" than they would be in "London, New York or Glasgow or many other cities".

Indeed, there is widespread doubt that the national army and police will be able to meet the 2014 deadline, which has led to fears that a civil war could develop just as it did in the early and mid-1990s.

"Afghanistan is still in a crisis situation and slowly, slowly, it's getting worse," said Khadem Ahmad, editor-in-chief of the Erada Daily newspaper. "If the foreign troops leave, our army will not be able to take care of one district even for an hour."

The timetable for withdrawal, announced at a conference in Kabul in July was approved at a two-day Nato summit this month in the Portuguese city of Lisbon. Under the plan, the security handover will be implemented gradually until the end of 2014, when combat operations end.

Some Afghans have made comparisons between this and another uncertain period in recent history. When defeated Soviet forces withdrew from the country in 1989, the regime they left in place clung to power for three years before insurgent fighters finally took control.

A civil war between the militants ensued, killing tens of thousands of people in the capital alone. The United States and its allies, which had supported the rebels against the Soviets, were accused of abandoning Afghanistan. Mr Ahmad is certain a similar scenario will unfold again, only this time the collapse into anarchy will come quicker.

"The centres of the provinces and the cities will be with the government, but the rest of Afghanistan will be with the enemy," he said.

Nato has offered reassurances that the country will not be left to implode. The alliance's secretary general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, said Nato will be here for "as long as it takes to finish our job" and the transition has been described as dependent upon the security situation.

There are 150,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan. More than 650 coalition personnel have been killed this year and, according to the UN, civilian casualties were up by 31 per cent in the first half of 2010. Violence has spread to once peaceful northern areas, while the Taliban's heartlands in the south and east continue to be the scenes of the fiercest fighting.

Although the US has not ruled out extending its own combat missions beyond the 2014 cut-off point, American troops are due to start withdrawing next July - another deadline that looms large on the political horizon and the battlefield.

Ghulam Jelani Zwak, director of the Afghan Analytical and Advisory Centre, warned that Nato's timetable would prove impossible if the situation on the ground is a factor.

"This is an unrealistic target and it will not happen. In 2014, the Afghan army will not be capable of taking responsibility and I think they'll need to change their decision," he said. "The army that we have is, according to any definition, not an army. Without heavy weapons, without an air force, without tanks and artillery, you cannot name a group of armed people an army."

Nato claims it is on track to meet its targets. On its website, the alliance praised the progress made in "building up the strength, equipment and capabilities of the Afghan National Security Forces", which it said would number 300,000 by the end of 2011.

However, some observers believe the rebels have been boosted by the latest developments. Abdullah Kamawal is a member of Hizb-e-Islami, a political party with a splinter group that is part of the insurgency.

"They will all think we are the winners," he said.

Mr Kamawal added that the timetable could help attempts at reconciliation, but only if the militants are convinced the exit strategy is genuine. "If we, and they, are sure that they will leave, this is then an internal issue and, as an internal issue, it is a lot more possible to solve by talks," he said.

csands@thenational.ae