On May 27, US President Barack Obama announced that the last American troops would withdraw from Afghanistan by the end of 2016.
Assuming that the two candidates in the Afghan presidential election run-off make good on their promises to conclude a bilateral security agreement (BSA) that would permit a residual American military presence, some 9,800 US troops will remain in the country after 2014, with half of them slated to depart by the end of 2015. From 2015 onward, the remaining troops will conduct counter-terrorism operations and work to train the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) for two more years, eventually leaving only a token force to protect the American embassy in Kabul. The potential fallout of this relatively rapid departure of American forces does not bode well for Afghanistan’s future, and could exacerbate India-Pakistan rivalries in Afghanistan.
Obama’s decision should not surprise anyone. It is primarily a response to domestic political concerns, addressing the American public’s war fatigue. The swap between the only American prisoner of war in Afghanistan and five senior Taliban commanders, which took place on May 31, was perceived, rightly or wrongly, as evidence of Obama’s willingness to get rid of the conflict and all its consequences. At same time, the US decision to withdraw by the end of 2016 plays opportunistically on the undeniable success of the Afghan elections: even as Obama acknowledges that the United States will not leave behind “a perfect Afghanistan”, he can present the stable political transition as evidence of a successful mission that justifies the withdrawal.
In Afghanistan, however, the real question lies in the capacity of the Afghan government to survive. Whoever wins the presidential election will have to face the daunting task of stabilising the country, with diminishing resources and limited or nonexistent security guarantees in a context of unsolved regional disputes with neighbours.
The 9,800 troops scheduled to remain in Afghanistan will likely be a sufficient force to mitigate the consequences of these unstable circumstances long enough to allow Obama to leave office with the withdrawal complete and the Afghan government still intact. But this respite will probably be only temporary, and a longer-term American military commitment would have provided greater promise of stability.
True, there are limits to what a sustained US presence would have been able to accomplish. A mere 9,800 troops would have been incapable of achieving what a much larger force has been unable to do over the past 12 years. But it would have contributed to the consolidation of the Afghan government and reassured the international aid donors, ensuring a smoother transition.
India and Pakistan are equally unlikely to be very enthusiastic about the hasty US departure, though for different reasons. Each viewed an ongoing American presence as a check against its greatest fear: that the other would secure “undue influence” on the Afghan government. Yet even if both Delhi and Islamabad have anticipated the US move and started to prepare for it, it is doubtful that either had foreseen it at such an early date, with the political future of Afghanistan still so uncertain.
As such, both India and Pakistan fear the emergence of a “power vacuum” (in other words, chaos) in Afghanistan following the departure of American troops. Although this is not the most likely scenario in the short to medium term, it is an especially dramatic one. Both countries could be hurt by militants operating out of Afghanistan, with or without state support, while Afghan domestic actors’ relative weaknesses and lack of territorial control would make irrelevant both powers’ efforts to broker deals that advance their interests. Moreover, such a situation would introduce an additional element of suspicion between India and the US, because Delhi would fear that the US might be tempted to rely increasingly on Pakistan to prevent the occurrence of a power vacuum. The early departure of US troops will only exacerbate this perception.
But even in a more optimistic — and hopefully more realistic — scenario in which a partly dysfunctional Afghan state manages to survive in the short term but is unable to reestablish control over much of the country’s territory, the pace of the US withdrawal has the potential to destabilise the country by accelerating regional competition over Afghanistan’s future. For India and Pakistan, the main point of contention will be Taliban participation in the Afghan government. Delhi adamantly rejects such an arrangement. Islamabad (despite its official claims to the contrary) is trying to promote a power-sharing agreement between the Afghan government and the Islamist militia. A closer look at each country’s strategy in Afghanistan is illuminating.
Pakistan has, over the past few years, partially redefined its Afghan policy. It no longer focuses exclusively on the Pashtun, reaching out to elements of the former Northern Alliance and thereby dividing the anti-Taliban camp. It has, moreover, favoured a bilateral reconciliation process between the Afghan government and the Taliban, contributing to the latter’s acceptance by the international community as a legitimate actor. Finally, Islamabad has consolidated its control over the Taliban over the past few months. Yet Pakistan has managed to strengthen its bargaining position with Afghanistan and its neighbours. It is now proposing to its neighbours a non-interference agreement that would de facto consolidate the position of its Taliban proxies.
India, on the other hand, has somehow managed to isolate Pakistan regionally and will continue to support the government produced by the Afghan elections. Yet Delhi cannot ignore the fact that the early departure of the last US forces will inevitably render that government even more fragile, with adverse consequences for Indian development efforts across the country.
The announcement of the full US withdrawal will only provide additional incentive for both India and Pakistan to accelerate their existing policies in order to gain the upper hand in Afghanistan before 2016, creating further mistrust and potential disequilibrium.
The paradox of the US decision is, therefore, that the pace of the withdrawal defeats the purpose of the BSA. Chances are that, in the process, this will lead the main regional players, India and Pakistan, to further question the reliability of the US and increase mistrust with both of them.
The writer is senior associate director of the South Asia Programme at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.