Afghanistan has reached a turning point. The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) formally handed over control of the last 95 districts to Afghan forces at a ceremony attended by President Hamid Karzai and NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen at a military academy outside Kabul on Tuesday, June 18. Most of those districts are located in the volatile south of the country. The approximate 100,000 NATO soldiers still stationed in the country will now only be called upon if needed.
On the same day as the handover, the Taliban made a show of strength by carrying out attacks. A bomb explosion in Kabul killed at least three people and injured 24 others. Two rockets fired at the US airbase Bagram, just north of the capital, later on killed four US soldiers.
The Taliban have an air of self-confidence. Their new official office in Doha, the capital of the Gulf state Qatar, is a clear sign of their new strength. The militants have also announced they plan to continue carrying out attacks in Afghanistan, despite negotiations with the US, which are planned for Thursday, June 20. The US government announced on Tuesday it would engage in direct talks with the Taliban to put an end to the conflict.
After over one decade of the ISAF effort, peace seems unlikely without first negotiating with the extremists, according to the political analyst Waheed Mozhdah.
"The international community has concluded that the conflict in Afghanistan cannot be solved through war with the US. Now, the US is looking for negotiations with the Taliban ahead of 2014 so they can leave the country in a state of peace," he said. "The talks in Doha could be a big step in the right direction."
It seems President Hamid Karzai is of another opinion. He has said he does not approve of the way the talks are set to be held and his government has announced it will boycott the negotiations in Doha unless the Afghan government is involved in them. Karzai has also threatened to halt security talks with the US over the matter.
Foreign help after 2014
Without foreign aid, it will be difficult for the Afghans to handle the Taliban's immense influence, according to Adrienne Woltersdorf, director of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation's (FES) Afghanistan office. She said the conditions in different regions of the country varied immensely and that this had not been taken into consideration with regard to the transition process. "The criticsm is that the process is based more on collected data rather than on local conditions."
She pointed out that while northern Afghanistan was relatively peaceful, vast swathes of the south were in control of the Taliban. At the same time, Woltersdorf added, there was no real alternative, considering that none of the ISAF countries were prepared to stay in the country any longer.
Local security forces
The Afghan government has around 350.000 security forces at its disposal to fight the Taliban. But that number is more impressive than reality itself. Experts such as the former German General Egon Ramms believe that the country's security forces are overwhelmed with the job and will continue to need the support of foreign troops. Experts agree the Afghan air force will not be able to operate independently.
The former NATO Commander of the Allied Joint Force Command in Brunssum warned, "If the Taliban become more active after the withdrawal of ISAF soldiers, the worst-case scenario is that it could unsettle the entire country." As of yet, the international follow-up operation "resolute support," which was to be implemented from 2015, has not been clearly defined.
Pakistan as a destabilizing factor
According to Afghan analyst Hamidullah Noor from the Kabul-based National Center for Policy Research, Pakistan is seeking to capitalize on its neighbor's weaknesses. "As soon as the Pakistanis realize that foreign troops have left Afghanistan, they will supply the Taliban with weapons, thus overwhelming Afghan security forces," he said.
Despite its lack of proper training and modern equipment, the Afghan military is still much better off than the police, according to Afghanistan expert Conrad Schetter from the University of Bonn. "Police training in Afghanistan simply failed at the local level," he said. "Leaders tried to create a police force by sticking local militiamen in uniforms. But they run the risk that these militias will take advantage of the situation and ultimately take control."
After the handover of responsibility, many Afghans are now worried. Kabul street vendor Shaheb told DW, "If they keep their promise and foreign aid keeps flowing in, then we will have no problems taking over security nationwide. But Afghanistan might face a difficult future if aid is no longer provided."