LISBON/KABUL (Reuters) - NATO has agreed to end its combat mission in Afghanistan and hand responsibility to Afghan forces by the end of 2014, while also promising it will not abandon Afghanistan in its fight against the Taliban.
Following are some scenarios that could result from NATO’s bid to extract the 150,000 foreign troops from a nine-year-old conflict widely seen as going badly for the United States and its allies:
If the pressure from non-U.S. members of NATO to pull out grows stronger and there is a precipitous withdrawal, the worst-case scenario would be a return to civil war, with Afghanistan’s poorly trained police and army largely left to fend for themselves against a strong Taliban-led insurgency.
U.S. troops might remain — a senior U.S. official has said U.S. forces could remain in a combat role after the end of 2014, unlike the rest of the NATO force — but they would be limited in number. U.S. President Barack Obama has said he will begin withdrawing some of the 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan by July 2011, a promise his critics say has already emboldened the Taliban.
While NATO states have committed to boosting their training effort to bring the Afghan security forces to a target strength of 300,000 by the end of 2011, the plan has been hampered by high desertion rates and a shortage of qualified recruits.
The head of the NATO training mission estimated in late September that attrition in the Afghan army and police, including from desertion and casualties, meant 133,000 more recruits were needed to increase the total number of personnel by 50,000 and hit the target.
The fact that Karzai is scheduled to end his second and final term in 2014 could increase the risk of instability.
If Afghan forces were unable to fill a security vacuum caused by the departure of foreign troops, factional fighting could result, returning the country to the instability seen before the U.S.-led intervention in 2001.
This could create conditions for the return of al Qaeda fighters to Afghanistan. Instability could fuel Islamist radicalism in the country and further unsettle nuclear-armed Pakistan and Central Asian states.
This would represent a serious strategic defeat for the United States and its allies, damage the prestige of NATO and give a major motivational boost to radical Islamists, increasing the risks of militant attacks on Western targets, particularly in Europe, security analysts say.
NATO has long since stopped talking of defeating the Taliban. A good scenario from NATO’s point of view would involve a gradual, managed exit while building up Afghan forces and improving standards of governance to create the conditions for a negotiated solution to the conflict on NATO’s terms.
The alliance backs efforts by President Hamid Karzai to encourage reintegration of insurgent leaders and fighters — provided they cut ties with al Qaeda, lay down their arms and respect the Afghan constitution, including its provisions for the protection of human rights, particularly those of women.
NATO has stepped up attacks on the insurgency and targeted leaders since Obama ordered a big increase in troop levels last year in an effort to push Taliban leaders into negotiations.
Preliminary contacts with the insurgents have yet to bear fruit, with the Taliban insisting that foreign troops must first leave the country. Some doubt the insurgents have any interest in talking seriously to Karzai’s government given their belief they are in the process of winning a long war of attrition.
Encouraging the insurgents to talk could require a softening of the government position on the constitution and sacrificing gains made in areas like women’s rights and education that have been hailed as successes of the international intervention. While unpalatable to Western governments, analysts say they would accept this as a price for leaving a relatively stable Afghanistan behind them.
The United States and its NATO allies have acknowledged that an outright defeat of the Taliban-led insurgency is not likely. The rigidly religious, tribal-based movement is deeply ingrained in the fabric of Afghan society and is not going to uprooted.
Perhaps the best outcome for the United States and its allies therefore would be a negotiated solution in which the Taliban ends its insurgency and agrees to cut ties with al Qaeda.
The capture or handover of Osama bin Laden, mastermind of the September 11, 2001 attacks that prompted the U.S.-led invasion, would allow Washington to declare the original mission launched by former U.S. President George W. Bush a success, although nine years after the war began, it remains highly unlikely.