With prospects of a full US withdrawal from Afghanistan, there are growing concerns the country might slide back into anarchy. DW examines the factors likely to shape the nation's security situation post 2014.
After more than 12 years of conflict, Afghanistan faces a crucial year as international troops prepare to leave the country by the end of 2014. Fearing a deterioration of the situation in the years to come, the United States has been trying to secure a long-term security agreement with the Afghan government that would allow it to keep up to a 10,000-strong residual force in the country.
The military presence, which would include troops from other NATO member states, is intended to conduct counter-terrorism operations and to continue its mission of training and assisting Afghan security forces.
But despite having the endorsement of Afghanistan's Loya Jirga, a grand assembly of 2,500 community leaders and tribal elders, the deal has become the subject of bitter public wrangling between Washington and Kabul. Afghan President Hamid Karzai has refused to sign the so-called Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with the US, saying that the deal should be concluded by his successor after the next presidential election, due to be held on April 5, 2014.
Karzai, who is constitutionally barred from seeking a third term after ruling Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, said that it was up to the future government to live with the consequences of the decision. However, it is unclear whether any of the 11 candidates running for the presidency will be any more inclined to allow foreign troops to stay in the war-ravaged country.
Washington's 'zero option'
The Afghan leader's refusal to sign the accord, coupled with secret talks with the Taliban, his anti-American rhetoric and a recent decision to release 65 prisoners - accused of committing grave crimes against Afghans and Americans - has angered Washington and its allies.
It has also prompted US President Barack Obama to order his administration to plan for a full withdrawal of US troops, also known as the "zero option," by the end of this year. On February 25, Obama told Karzai in a phone call that the longer it took for Afghanistan to sign the pact, the smaller the residual force was likely to be.
But perhaps even more importantly, the failure to reach an agreement would probably keep the the US from providing a large amount of the estimated four billion USD per year needed to fund the Afghan security forces.
Washington's reaction has, in turn, led NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen to say that a lack of agreement would mean a total pullout of all of the alliance's troops and equipment out of the country by December.
During Karzai's years at the helm of Afghan politics, the impoverished country has witnessed progress in many social, economic and political areas. But analysts say the president will also leave behind a country plagued with rampant corruption, a weak government, a resilient insurgency and, above all, fragile security forces.
'A recipe for disaster'
Afghanistan's police and army are viewed as having made great strides in their ability to fight the Taliban, but doubts remain over their ability to enforce law and order nationwide, especially as the militants have stepped up their attacks in recent months.
According to the UN, overall civilian casualties rose by 14 percent in 2013, making it one of the deadliest years in the 12-year war for civilians. Moreover, casualties among Afghan police officers are reported to have doubled since NATO's ISAF mission handed over security responsibility to local forces.
There are doubts over the ability of Afghan forces to provide security nationwide without NATO support
Michael Kugelman, a South Asia expert at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, says that a large part of Afghanistan's ragtag security forces remain “deeply troubled,” as they continue to be afflicted by drug abuse, illiteracy, desertions and combat-related incapacities.
"These armed forces preside over one of the world's most volatile security environments. This is all one big recipe for disaster, no matter how much Afghanistan and its allies around the world try to sugarcoat the issue."
In light of this development, analysts argue that Karzai's refusal to sign the BSA may end up jeopardizing not only Afghanistan's security, but also it's political and economic stability in years to come. It remains to be seen whether the next Afghan president will sign the deal. But regardless of this, experts have singled out other factors which are likely to be crucial in shaping the security situation in the country over the coming years.
The Taliban and al Qaeda
The biggest threat to Afghan security remain the Taliban. According to Kugelman, the militants have two choices once the international troop presence dwindles or disappears altogether.
One, they can use their leverage to try to compel the Afghan government to strike a deal that gives the Taliban influence in government. Two, and much more likely, he adds, they can intensify their efforts to overthrow the government, with assistance from allies such as the Haqqani network, Lashkar-e-Taiba, and possibly even the Pakistani Taliban.
A further security threat is likely be the terrorist network al Qaeda which, while weakened in Afghanistan, still has a presence in the country, and an even larger base in neighboring Pakistan. "If the security situation deteriorates enough in Afghanistan, and particularly if the Afghan Taliban manages to wrest power once again, then certainly we have to worry about an al Qaeda resurgence," said Kugelman.
Kristian Berg Harpviken, Director of the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) points out in this context that as a result of the vigorous kill-and-capture campaign led by the international forces over the past few years, a younger and more radical generation of Afghan Taliban, more sympathetic to the al Qaeda ideology, has already entered middle leadership positions.
But the critical factor is expected to be upcoming presidential poll, as it is likely to have an impact on the Taliban's trajectory in the following months. Kugelman argues that if the vote is seen as free, fair, credible, and legitimate, and brings to power a new government regarded as effective and non-corrupt, then the Afghan masses will have reason to see their government as a better alternative to the Taliban.
"And if Afghans on a large scale perceive their government in such a way then recruitment to the insurgency could be weakened, and the insurgency weakened overall." the expert argues.
On the other hand, a failed election could lead to new fronts, defections, and ultimately see various neighboring countries activating their long-standing relations with their favorite Afghan warlords, analysts warn.
Pakistan and India
One of these countries is Pakistan which is believed to support the Taliban with money and equipment and use the militants as a means to maintain a political influence in Afghanistan. Islamabad have been locked in a decades-long struggle with the Indian government for strategic influence and a foothold in the war-torn country.
Analysts believe that this "proxy war" waged by the nuclear-armed neighbors will contribute to several destabilizing forces remaining entrenched in Afghanistan after the NATO pullout. "If Islamabad continues to allow the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani network to maintain sanctuaries in Pakistan, then there's no reason to think the insurgency will end or even weaken." said Kugelman.
New Delhi recently signaled its intentions when it announced a 2 billion USD aid package for Afghanistan - the biggest India has ever given to another country.
The way forward?
Given and the volatility of the situation in Afghanistan and the many interests at stake, many analysts fear that the level of violence will only worsen in the months to come. "International warfare has failed in Afghanistan," argues Harpviken.
However, many agree that the most realistic way forward for the country is to make sure that free and fair elections are held, the reconciliation process is continued and the international community keeps providing badly needed assistance to prevent the hard-won achievements of the past 12 years from being wiped away.