Skip to main content

Afghan war is not over yet

By Stephen Tankel, Special to CNN
updated 12:13 PM EDT, Wed May 23, 2012
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
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
Carlos Moreno says atheists, a sizable fraction of Americans, deserve representation in Congress.
updated 12:25 PM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Democrats and unions have a long history of mutual support that's on the decline. But in a time of income inequality they need each other more than ever
updated 12:23 AM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
William McRaven
Peter Bergen says Admiral William McRaven leaves the military with a legacy of strategic thinking about special operations
updated 12:11 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
updated 1:24 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
updated 9:06 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
updated 11:54 AM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
updated 10:34 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
updated 10:43 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat August 30, 2014
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
updated 9:30 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT