Terms of retreat

As America prepares to withdraw, India must brace for greater instability in Afghanistan

After his meeting with Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai at the White House over the weekend, US President Barack Obama declared that a "historic moment" is at hand as America cedes all the security responsibilities to Afghan national forces this spring. US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta said the decision marks the "last chapter" in the Afghan war. It certainly is a historic moment. For, America's longest ever war in foreign lands is drawing to a close. But it is certainly not the last chapter in Afghanistan's prolonged conflict. Ending the American occupation will reduce Washington's burdens, but it could also set the stage for a new and violent chapter in the tragic history of Afghanistan.

Four years ago, when he began his first term in the White House, Obama argued that America's military involvement in Afghanistan was a "war of necessity", and blamed his predecessor, George W. Bush, for turning his attention away to a costly and needless "war of choice" in Iraq. He quickly expanded the American military footprint in Afghanistan with the hope that the situation there could be turned around with a more focused strategic effort. As he begins his second term, Obama knows the situation in Afghanistan has only deteriorated. In a nation that has become war-weary, there is little significant political opposition to Obama's judgement that America must cut its losses and leave Afghanistan by 2014. On the question of countering international networks like the al-Qaeda, many in the Obama Administration are arguing that those objectives can be achieved without a significant military presence in Afghanistan.

Obama's meeting with Karzai, then, was about finalising the terms of American retreat. The two leaders agreed that the American forces would stop fighting and shift to supportive missions, such as training, before the summer of 2013. But few are willing to bet that the Afghan National Army and its police forces are fully prepared to cope with the inevitably stronger military offensives from the Taliban and other militant groups that enjoy sanctuaries in Pakistan. The two sides, however, differ on the size of a potential American residual force in Afghanistan, the pace of the withdrawal, the legal terms under which the American and international forces will operate, and the kind of arms and equipment the US should supply to Kabul. As Washington and Kabul negotiate these details in the coming months, Delhi must prepare to deal with the end of an era of relative political and military stability in Afghanistan.

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