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Afghan President Hamid Karzai is going through the most crucial phase in his presidency. By the end of 2014, he will be left to govern his country on his own and any success or failure would eventually be the success or failure of a nation. The world is wishing earnestly that he succeed, because a failure would have disastrous consequences not only for Afghanistan, but the entire world.
The Nato combat mission in Afghanistan will conclude by 2014-end and Washington is thinking about how fast to withdraw its 66,000 troops or whether to keep a small residual force there. Karzai will be discussing this and other crucial security issues with US President Barack Obama at their meeting in Washington this week.
Currently, all talks about Afghanistan are centred on the US-Nato withdrawal and its impact on Afghan security. There is a visceral fear that the Taliban would take advantage of any security vacuum to stage a comeback and undo everything which the Nato-Afghan combine has achieved so far. The onus is on Karzai to equip his forces to face the post-2014 challenges and it’s not a certainty that he would be able to.
The situation on the ground is fluid and there are factors which give both hope and concern. On the positive side, there are signs of an incipient peace process between the Afghan government and the Taliban, but past experiences should make us wary of investing much hope in it. Karzai seems confident of a smooth transition and will be under pressure to gain control. And Pakistan, which has been accused of backing insurgents, has recently signalled an apparent policy shift towards promoting its neighbour’s stability.
But the biggest concern is about the preparedness of Afghan army and police forces to challenge the Taliban and enforce peace. According to Pentagon, only one of 23 Nato-trained Afghan brigades can operate without American assistance. That assessment paints a dismal scenario of the reality on the ground. Nato and US forces are currently training Afghan forces for the post-2014 period, but the results have been woeful due to an alarming rise in insider attacks on US and Nato troops. The fear for life has crushed any appetite foreign troops might have to train their Afghan counterparts.
Karzai’s meeting with Obama is very important because it will define the future relationship between the two countries. It will be a critical encounter also because they will be required to reach an agreement on a few critical issues, like the number of US troops that will remain and the role they will play.
Obama is in a hurry to pull out his men from what has become a costly trap, and Karzai will be expected to successfully fill the vacuum which their departure creates.