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A bigger mandate

Interview: Gabriel DomínguezNovember 27, 2014

Reports suggest US troops may be allowed to conduct offensive operations in Afghanistan after 2014 - a decision likely triggered by fears that a full withdrawal would destabilize the country, says analyst Omar Hamid.

Afghanistan US Soldaten mit afghanischen Soldaten Archiv 2009 Kabul
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Marcel Mettelsiefen

After 13 years, the ISAF mission in Afghanistan will come to an end by December 31, 2014. A residual force (likely to be 10,000 strong) is set to remain in the conflict-ridden South Asian nation after this year. Until recently, these troops were to train Afghan security forces and limit their operations to counterterrorism raids against the terror network al Qaeda.

But according to US media reports, quoting administration officials, the mission has been broadened to allow these troops to also engage Taliban fighters under new guidelines quietly approved by President Barack Obama.

The move comes amid a resurgent insurgency and growing concerns as to whether the Afghan forces will be able to provide security throughout the country without assistance from foreign troops.

In a DW interview, Omar Hamid, head of Asia Pacific Country Risk at IHS and author of a report on the subject, explains in a DW interview that Washington's decision to retain a more robust military presence in Afghanistan has likely been influenced by fears that the vacuum that would be created by a full withdrawal could not only destabilize the war-torn country, but also create a situation similar to that in Iraq, which led to rise of "Islamic State" (IS).

Omar Hamid
Hamid: 'Afghan forces have not been able to completely prove themselves competent to deal with Taliban attacks'Image: IHS

The expert also explains why he believes improved relations with Pakistan are crucial to achieving peace within Afghanistan.

DW: What factors may have led President Obama to broaden the mission of the remaining forces?

Omar Hamid: The Obama administration's decision to seemingly reverse its policy has likely been triggered by fears that an all out withdrawal would destabilize Afghanistan, and create a situation similar to Iraq, where inadequately prepared security forces were unable to contain the Islamic State (IS).

Although the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) took over primary responsibility for security in 2012, they have not been able to completely prove themselves competent to deal with Taliban attacks. 2014 saw a record number of ANSF casualties, (4,600 till October) and raised concerns that the withdrawal of US support services like Medevac and counter IED capability would further raise casualty rates and lead to demoralization within the ANSF.

It had been feared that an increase in casualties, coupled with financial uncertainty created by any reduction in NATO aid (currently estimated to be USD 4.1 billion annually) would lead to the weakening of the government in Kabul and a disintegration of the security forces.

What does the new government in Kabul - led by President Ashraf Ghani - make of Washington's decision to broaden the mission?

Since assuming office in October, President Ghani has taken a number of steps to ensure a US presence that will actively support, rather than just train Afghan forces. Ghani signed a Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA), which his predecessor Hamid Karzai had refused to sign, laying the framework for US troops to remain.

Furthermore, Ghani has also quietly lifted the ban on night raids by US forces. Night raids had proved to be particularly contentious and had been banned by President Karzai in 2013. Another contentious tactic had been the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) to target insurgents, and this too has been reinstated since Ghani took office.

Although the exact rules of engagement for US troops have not been made public yet, it is almost certain that these troops will be able to engage insurgent groups independently, as well as in aid of Afghan forces. They will also likely provide air support for Afghan forces and conduct counter-terrorism operations not only against al Qaeda linked groups but domestic insurgents as well.

Pakistan is suspected of supporting the Taliban in Afghanistan. Is progress in the fight against the militants in Afghanistan really possible without the support of Islamabad?

The priorities of the Pakistani military have been shifting over the past couple of months. Even before launching a military offensive in North Waziristan in June 2014, the Pakistani army had been engaged in a highly successful campaign to create divisions within the TTP and other militant groups like the Haqqani Network.

The operation forced the TTP leadership, including the emir (supreme leader) Mullah Fazlullah, to move to Kunar, located in neighboring Afghanistan. This has put a strain on the command and control as well as the logistics of the group, with the TTP leadership no longer able to supervise its cells in the rest of Pakistan.

The army's so far successful operation has gained them credibility with both the US and Afghan governments. Both governments had in the past accused Pakistan of protecting certain militant groups like the Haqqani Network, who were alleged to have been close to the military establishment.

But in his recent visit to Afghanistan and the US, Pakistan's army chief Raheel Sharif pointed out that the army had acted against all militant groups, including the Haqqanis, in the current operation, a claim that is supported by the evidence on the ground.

Over the past year, most of the leadership of the Haqqani network has been eliminated, and several of their camps in North Waziristan were destroyed in the operation. Accordingly, Sharif was lauded and treated with great deference during his recent visits to Kabul and Washington, an indicator that both countries consider the Pakistan Army a crucial ally going forward.

USA Drohne US Predator
'US UAV strikes would prove to be more effective to eliminate the TTP sanctuaries in Afghanistan,' says HamidImage: AP

But what exactly is the Pakistani Army planning to do to stop the insurgency in Afghanistan?

There is a high probability that Pakistan will encourage the Taliban to enter into meaningful negotiations with President Ghani, with the aim of concluding a future power sharing agreement.

But Pakistan's demand in return would be for US and Afghan forces to eliminate the TTP sanctuaries in Kunar, Khost and other eastern Afghan provinces. And while the Afghan security forces' ability to do this remains limited, US UAV strikes would prove to be more effective. The continuing US presence, and the open ended nature of their role, increases the likelihood of this happening.

A key indicator of any enhanced cooperation between Afghanistan and Pakistan would be if the number of US UAV strikes in Kunar increases in the first half of 2015.

But why would President Ghani agree to a power sharing agreement with the Taliban?

If Ghani were to succeed in agreeing to a peace settlement with the Taliban, his political position would be immeasurably strengthened.

He would garner tremendous goodwill for having negotiated an end to the war and the president would no longer be dependent on CEO Abdullah Abdullah and his supporters. And if the US supports a peace initiative with the Taliban, the former Northern Alliance warlords would be hard pressed to oppose such a settlement.

Ghani appears to be favoring such a strategy, with his policy of simultaneously giving US troops more operational leeway to act against hardline insurgents, and improving relations with Pakistan.

Last month, Ghani rescinded a long standing request by the Afghan government for Indian forces to train and equip the ANSF, a gesture that was received positively by Pakistan who remains suspicious of Indian influence in Afghanistan. If Ghani decides instead to allow Pakistan to train and equip Afghan security forces, this would be a further indicator of increasing cooperation between the two countries.

Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai Kabul Afghanistan Porträt
Hamid: 'If Ghani were to succeed in signing a peace deal with the Taliban, his political position would be immeasurably strengthened'Image: picture alliance/AP Photo/Massoud Hossaini

Political stability in Afghanistan is likely to improve in the one year outlook due to the continued operational presence of US forces and a friendly relationship with Pakistan. While the Taliban will continue to launch attacks, any decrease in support from the Pakistan military would hamper their command and place the Taliban leadership, based in Pakistan, at great personal risk as well.

Moreover, any cessation of hostilities is likely to attract foreign investment in the natural resources sector, and will allow both the government and the Taliban to reap financial benefits.

Omar Hamid is Head of Asia Pacific Country Risk at IHS.