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The miscalculation of Hamid Karzai

Afghan president implies he can’t wait for foreign troops to leave, and now that feeling is mutual.
Last modified: 14 Jan 2013 23:07
[Reuters]

Afghan President Hamid Karzai told a press briefing on Monday morning that "Afghanistan will be more secure and a better place" after the withdrawal of NATO-led troops.

Karzai was speaking after returning from Washington, DC, and a series of meetings with President Barack Obama and other senior members of the US administration.

Listening to Karzai in recent months leaves the impression that he can't wait for the US military, and all the other International Security Assistance Force troops, to leave Afghanistan.

Well, now it seems like that feeling is mutual.

Obama announced last week that in the coming months, US troops will pull out of tiny outposts in small Afghan villages and return to their larger bases. This had originally been planned to take place towards the end of summer.

Essentially, the US president is accelerating the drawdown. Senior military officials in Afghanistan had been saying that they wanted to hold on to as many of their troops as possible during the summer fighting season. That’s now not going to happen.

NATO forces will still be here this summer. They’ll be training and mentoring, but also packing up. The Afghan army, already leading many operations, will take over all of them.

Toward the end of last year, the US Department of Defence reported that only one-of-23 Afghan battalions was ready to go into battle alone without any foreign help. So, in the coming months, the Afghan military is going to face enormous challenges.

At least they will still have the close air support that NATO can offer. This makes all the difference when going into battle with the Taliban; it means Afghan soldiers can be medically evacuated by air.

When US and NATO forces go, however, so will the air support. This will mean that Afghan troops, who might find themselves in a tight spot in a battle with anti-government forces, won’t be able to call in an airstrike. It also means that wounded soldiers will have to be transported by road over harsh, inhospitable terrain, a journey some may not survive.

US and Afghan officials have admitted in the past that Afghanistan isn’t likely to have an independent, fully functioning air force until at least 2017. There is a risk that the Afghan military will be badly exposed for at least a couple of years.

So why does Karzai think Afghanistan will be "more secure and a better place"? Well, he believes that as the foreigners leave, the anti-government forces will lose their reason for fighting. The foreigners are seen as invaders by these Taliban-allied fighters.

The problem is that it is the Afghan forces who are now suffering the greatest number of casualties.

From June to December last year, 870 Afghan National Army soldiers were killed in Afghanistan. The vast majority of these soldiers were killed by homemade roadside bombs planted by Taliban fighters. Incidentally, 85 percent of civilian deaths were also caused by these indiscriminate bombs.

Far from giving up, because they’ve got nothing to fight for, perhaps anti-government forces are instead sensing a new opportunity. That possibility also goes for the criminal drug gangs that are responsible for much of the fighting in and around Helmand province as well as the more religiously motivated fighters in the east of the country around Kandahar.