Even if NATO rushes to the exits, Afghan collapse is not inevitable

As French President Hollande promises troop withdrawal this year, and the rest of NATO plans to exit by 2014, Afghanistan's best hope may be the disunity and ill-discipline of the Taliban.

Omar Sobhani/AP
Afghan President Hamid Karzai shakes hands with French President Francois Hollande upon his arrival to Kabul, Afghanistan, Friday, May, 25. Hollande announced that his country's troops had carried out their mission in Afghanistan and that it was time for them to leave, an early pullout that will be coordinated with the United States and other allies.

In August 2010, when the Netherlands pulled 1,900 soldiers out of the Afghan province of Urozgan, NATO officials played down the significance of the withdrawal. Dutch Gen. Peter van Uhm praised his troops for restoring peace to their area, but admitted that “a lot still has to happen” in Afghanistan to guarantee the peace.

Today, as newly elected French President François Hollande visits 3,500 French troops based in the Afghan province of Kapisa, preparing them for an early departure by the end of 2012, NATO officials are wearing the brave face again. At the Afghan summit in Chicago, no NATO official publicly criticized the French leader’s decision following a decisive victory for Hollande’s party, which had promised an early exit from Afghanistan.

“Only France can decide what France does. It will be conducted in good understanding with our allies, especially President Obama, who understands the reasons, and in close consultation with Afghan authorities," President Hollande told reporters in Kabul during a brief stopover. “Without having totally disappeared, the terrorist threat from Afghanistan to our and our allies' territory has been partially curbed," he added.

In his meetings with French soldiers in Kapisa, Hollande came close to his own “Mission Accomplie” moment, telling his troops that one reason for their early departure is that “simply, you have carried out your mission."

In NATO’s 130,000 man International Security and Assistance Force in Afghanistan, the departure of 3,500 soldiers is not significant, particularly if the bulk of those 126,500 other soldiers will be leaving in two years’ time anyway. President Obama himself plans to withdraw some 30,000 US troops this year, and most, but not all, of the remaining 60,000 troops by 2014. Afghan officials say that Afghan Army soldiers will take over the French base in Nijrab, Kapisa, and with it, the responsibility of maintaining security in that northeastern part of the country.

Yet as the Dutch departure of 2,000 troops in 2010 – prompted by a resounding defeat of the pro-NATO government of Jan-Peter Balkenende – and the French departure in 2012 – prompted by the defeat of Nicolas Sarkozy – shows, European patience with the 10-year Afghan operation has worn out. The rush for the exits has begun.

France’s absence will be felt, to be sure. France has been the fifth-largest contributor of troops and financial support to the NATO mission in Afghanistan, and its allies knew that in the crucial province of Kapisa, the gap between the restive provinces of Konar and Nooristan to the east and Kabul  and the Panjshir Valley to the West, French troops would contain any insurgent monkey business.

But, as security experts in Kabul told me on a recent reporting trip, the major lesson of the past 100 years or so is that insurgencies, while deadly, rarely succeed in Afghanistan without major outside support.

Without British support, former Afghan King Shah Shuja could not retake power in Kabul by force in 1832 and 1833. 

Without Soviet backing, the Khalq and Parcham parties would have been unable to launch their urban coup d’etat of April 1978, killing President Daoud, and paving the way for a Soviet invasion in 1979.

Without US-supplied arms, Pakistani training and logistical support, and Saudi funding, the Afghan mujahideen and foreign fighters who fought the Soviet occupation of the 1980s would have remained a village nuisance.

The current group of insurgents, a coalition of Taliban fighters, Hizb-e-Islami veterans, Al Qaeda adventurists, and tribal militias from Pakistan’s North Waziristan region, have a proven ability to blow stuff up. They have also managed to make certain areas of the country, such as the southeastern provinces of Khost and Paktika and the far eastern provinces of Konar and Nooristan no-go areas, not only for Western aid groups, but even for Afghan troops. (See a provincial map of Afghanistan here.)

But these groups, coming from different tribes, regions, and ideological backgrounds, show signs of being every bit as disunified and undisciplined as the various factions that make up the current Karzai government. Their ability to take, hold, and govern Afghan cities is still unproven, and given their preference for guerrilla warfare, instead of large coordinated set-piece battles, this ability is very much in doubt. Barring a complete dissolution of the Afghan National Army – a potentiality that is entirely possible without stronger national leadership – a small disparate undisciplined guerrilla force like the Taliban is likely to spend the next decade as they have the past decade: in small dusty villages, far from the halls of power.

In short, if the Afghan Army – even as ill prepared as they currently are – simply remain in their bases, lacking French or other NATO trainers, it will be very difficult for the Taliban to dislodge them.

Inertia, as well as time, is on the Afghan government’s side.

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