Skip to main content

Afghan war is not over yet

By Stephen Tankel, Special to CNN
May 23, 2012 -- Updated 1613 GMT (0013 HKT)
An Afghanistan National Army soldier searches a car's passenger in Kandahar, a largely Pashtun city.
An Afghanistan National Army soldier searches a car's passenger in Kandahar, a largely Pashtun city.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Stephen Tankel: Non-Pashtun Afghan army readiness to take over Pashtun areas in doubt
  • Tankel: Pashtuns are small minority in the army, which could spark civil war
  • Army linked to U.S., India, which means Pakistan faces unfriendly army on border, he says
  • Tankel: Despite decisions made at NATO summit for withdrawal, thorny issues remain

Editor's note: Stephen Tankel is an assistant professor at American University and a non-resident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His book "Storming the World Stage: The Story of Lashkar-e-Taiba" was recently published by Columbia University Press.

(CNN) -- At the NATO summit in Chicago, President Obama and leaders of America's NATO allies agreed on an "irreversible" plan to withdraw from Afghanistan. But challenges remain.

Despite the deliberately unambiguous word choice used to describe the withdrawal, uncertainty about how the West will confront the obstacles ahead remains. Issues specifically related to Afghanistan are yet to be resolved, and plenty of others are tied to the volatile politics of the area.

The Afghan National Army is already taking the lead in regions with roughly 75% of the population, with U.S. and other NATO troops acting as support. However, this does not include the most contested areas in the south and east, where Afghan forces are slated to assume responsibility by next summer. Serious doubts persist about their readiness to do so.

Despite significant training efforts, the army's level of competence remains in question. It lacks many of the support functions needed for war fighting. The army will remain dependent on international forces for these capabilities and on the international community for financial assistance, expected to cost at least $4 billion a year.

The strategic partnership agreement signed by the United States and Afghanistan in early May addressed both issues. Washington pledged a residual force of U.S. troops that will stay in Afghanistan and promised financial assistance. Still unclear, however, is how many soldiers will make up the residual force, how long they will stay, what their main objectives will be and where they will be based.

Complicating matters even more, the Afghan army is overwhelmingly non-Pashtun, which makes operating in the overwhelmingly Pashtun south and east, where the Taliban-led insurgency is strongest, all the more challenging. The army's ethnic composition and that of the Karzai government are also among Pakistan's chief concerns. Which brings us to the wider regional concerns.

During the 1990s, Pakistan's rival India supported the non-Pashtun Northern Alliance against the Pakistan-sponsored Taliban. Today, Pakistan views the non-Pashtun army in Afghanistan as essentially the Northern Alliance on steroids: a 300,000-plus force equipped by the United States and, like the government in Kabul, partial to India.

If the Afghan army holds together, then Pakistan faces an unfriendly army loyal to an unfriendly government on its western border.

If the army splinters as a result of its unbalanced ethnic composition -- Pashtuns represent the majority of the population but a small minority in the army -- this probably would result in inter- and intra-ethnic violence that could rend the nation. A civil war in Afghanistan would have disastrous consequences for the region, particularly neighboring Pakistan.

Yet Pakistan's fears have led it to pursue a myopic policy that could contribute to this very outcome. It supports the Taliban, the Haqqani network and other assorted proxies in Afghanistan both as a hedging strategy and with the aim of positioning itself as the ultimate arbiter of any resolution. This has encouraged hedging among other regional actors and led to Pakistan's isolation.

Though the Pakistani security establishment supports an Afghan-led reconciliation with the Taliban, it seeks significant control over that process. This is unacceptable to Kabul, Washington and, ironically, the Taliban. They all want to minimize Pakistan's role.

These thorny issues have been extant for quite some time, but no clear path to resolving them has been proposed, and it doesn't appear any significant progress was made in Chicago.

The main focus on Pakistan during the NATO summit concerned its willingness to reopen NATO supply lines into Afghanistan that have been closed since November after a U.S. air raid accidentally killed 24 Pakistani soldiers. Since then, supplies have been shipped via the longer and more expensive Northern Distribution Network running through Russia and Central Asia.

Although reopening Pakistani supply lines is not essential for maintaining NATO forces on the ground, they constitute an important logistical link for any large-scale withdrawal.

When Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari received a last-minute invite to Chicago, it was well understood that this was intended to ease Pakistan's resistance to reopening these supply lines. But they remain closed, subject to a disagreement over the transit fee Pakistan will receive for each truck and Washington's unwillingness to issue a formal apology for the air raid.

Most experts anticipate that the issue will be resolved sooner rather than later. More troubling, Pakistan's presence in Chicago was tied mainly to its control of supply lines, not to the vital role it could play in tipping the balance in Afghanistan toward either a political resolution or a possible civil war.

Meanwhile, the Pakistan military appears to be increasing support for its own proxies in anticipation of the NATO drawdown, heightening the possibility of civil war in Afghanistan. That other regional powers, chiefly India and Iran, are readying their own proxies for this eventuality only risks making it more likely.

Questions remain about whether any residual American force will be sufficient to provide enough support to the Afghan army to avoid such an outcome. It's also unknown whether this objective will take priority over strategically defeating al Qaeda or at least denying it the ability to reclaim its safe haven in Afghanistan.

The summit in Chicago was an important turning point. U.S. forces cannot remain in Afghanistan at present levels indefinitely, not least because there is no purely military solution to these problems. But it's clear that a timeline for the transition to a new role for the U.S. and NATO allies in Afghanistan does not mean the war is over.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen Tankel.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
April 23, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Robert Hickey says most new housing development is high-end, catering to high-earners.
April 23, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Alexander Motyl says as Russian President Putin snarled at Ukraine, his foreign minister was signing a conciliatory accord with the West. Whatever the game, the accord is a major stand down by Russia
April 23, 2014 -- Updated 1229 GMT (2029 HKT)
Les Abend says at every turn, the stowaway teen defied the odds of discovery and survival. What pilot would have thought to look for a person in the wheel well?
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 2247 GMT (0647 HKT)
Q & A with artist Rachel Sussman on her new book of photographs, "The Oldest Living Things in the World."
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1958 GMT (0358 HKT)
Martin Blaser says the overuse of antibiotics threatens to deplete our bodies of "good" microbes, leaving us vulnerable to an unstoppable plague--an "antibiotic winter"
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1737 GMT (0137 HKT)
John Sutter asks: Is it possible to eat meat in modern-day America and consider yourself an environmentalist without being a hypocrite?
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Sally Kohn notes that Meb Keflezighi rightly was called an American after he won the Boston Marathon, but his status in the U.S. once was questioned
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1256 GMT (2056 HKT)
Denis Hayes and Scott Denman say on this Earth Day, the dawn of the Solar Age is already upon us and the Atomic Age of nuclear power is in decline
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 2036 GMT (0436 HKT)
Retired Coast Guard officer James Loy says a ship captain bears huge responsibility.
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1708 GMT (0108 HKT)
Peter Bergen says the latest strikes are part of an aggressive U.S. effort to target militants, including a bomb maker
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Cynthia Lummis and Peter Welch say 16 agencies carry out national intelligence, and their budgets are top secret. We need to know how they are spending our money.
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1235 GMT (2035 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says President Obama knows more than anyone that he has much at stake in the midterm elections.
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
Eric Sanderson says if you really want to strike a blow for the environment--and your health--this Earth Day, work to get cars out of cities and create transportation alternatives
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Bruce Barcott looks at the dramatic differences in marijuana laws in Colorado and Louisiana
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 2047 GMT (0447 HKT)
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery supports the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1817 GMT (0217 HKT)
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1752 GMT (0152 HKT)
Graham Allison says if an unchecked and emboldened Russia foments conflict in a nation like Latvia, a NATO member, the West would have to defend it.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1825 GMT (0225 HKT)
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1026 GMT (1826 HKT)
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1250 GMT (2050 HKT)
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
April 17, 2014 -- Updated 1845 GMT (0245 HKT)
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
ADVERTISEMENT