KABUL (Reuters) - Washington’s hint of an Afghanistan endgame in saying U.S. troops won’t still be there in 2017 might help win over a war-weary public, but there is no guarantee a notoriously patient Taliban won’t just wait the Americans out.
Eight years is no short time, but setting a rough exit date could at least help U.S. President Barack Obama sell the idea of sending thousands more troops to join a war that has already lasted that long.
A resurgent Taliban may be a different matter.
“Time implications are very different for the Taliban and the West. For the Taliban, eight years is not a long time,” Thomas Ruttig, co-director of independent research organization Afghan Analysts Network, told Reuters.
“This might help the Taliban to pursue the approach they have been pursuing, to outwait the West’s engagement in Afghanistan. Let’s not forget, for Afghans, the war has gone on for 30 years.”
Obama says he wants to “finish the job” and will outline his revised Afghan strategy next Tuesday, when he is expected to announce whether he will send up to 40,000 more troops his top commander, General Stanley McChrystal, says he needs.
There are about 110,000 foreign troops already in Afghanistan, including 68,000 Americans. Despite the growing numbers, violence reached its worst levels this year since the Taliban were toppled by U.S.-backed Afghan forces in late 2001.
Obama is unlikely to announce any specific plan for withdrawing troops but opinion polls show Americans — and many of their allies — are growing increasingly frustrated with the war as military death tolls reached record levels this year.
Washington’s talk of an exit strategy could also send the wrong message to neighboring Pakistan, which may be less inclined to break ties with the Afghan Taliban if it thinks the militants will still be around after a U.S. withdrawal.
Many Afghans are suspicious of Pakistan and accuse its intelligence service, ISI, of supporting the Afghan Taliban. Kabul has also pointed the finger at the ISI, saying it was behind two attacks on the Indian embassy in the Afghan capital, claims which Islamabad denies.
“On the Pakistani side, there is the risk that those who have always thought the West’s engagement in Afghanistan is limited, will be thinking of how to deal with Afghanistan after the West has gone,” Ruttig said.
Pakistan Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani said on Thursday he feared an influx of U.S. troops could destabilize his country by pushing Taliban fighters across the border, particularly into the volatile southwestern province of Baluchistan.
Pakistan is battling its own Taliban insurgency and has launched offensives this year in tribal areas in the northwest such as South Waziristan.
Haroun Mir, co-founder of Kabul’s Afghanistan Center for Research and Policy Studies, said despite those offensives, Pakistan still had to show whether it was committed to fighting the Afghan Taliban.
“The Pakistan operations in Waziristan this year were localized. We will have to see whether they go after the Taliban leadership in Quetta, go after the Taliban who are fighting in Afghanistan,” said Mir.
Despite talk of an endgame, political leaders and military commanders accept that any withdrawal will largely depend on the state of the Afghan security forces in eight years.
President Hamid Karzai, in his inauguration speech last week, said Afghans would be able to take over security of the country in five years, a target U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called “ambitious” but one that Washington would work toward.
McChrystal, in his review of the war in August, said Afghanistan would need a combined army and police force of 400,000 to be able to secure the country themselves. There are currently around 95,000 Afghan soldiers and 93,000 police.
Major General Michael Ward, deputy commander of NATO forces training the Afghan army and police, said Karzai’s targets were achievable but some compromise in their eventual size may be inevitable.
“We think it’s realistic. Even if we don’t get to 240,000 (soldiers) or 160,000 (police), anything further along than where we are now ... will allow them to do a much better job,” Ward told Reuters.
Another major factor will be the Afghan government. Karzai satisfied Western dignitaries attending his inauguration by saying he would stamp out corruption in his government, which many say has fueled support for the Taliban.
While many endorsed Karzai’s promises in public, Ruttig said Western countries needed to keep up the pressure on Karzai to produce results after a disappointing first five-year term.
“The critical time is now. There is a danger Western pressure on Karzai will wane as it has done in the past. The important thing now is to keep the pressure on Karzai,” Ruttig said.
(Editing by Paul Tait)
For more Reuters coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan, see: here