A billion dollar question that intrigues the minds of strategists the world over is about the future course that Afghanistan could follow, as the occupation forces are on their way out. The prospects of Nato withdrawal, as envisaged in the recent Chicago Declaration, raise dilemmas about bringing durable peace and stability to Afghanistan in the context of interplay of various Afghan forces, and the prevalent regional and global security environment.

Historic evidence has it that neither the Taliban, nor the Northern Alliance alone could sustain their rule over Afghanistan while ensuring peace and stability. “On post-American-Afghanistan” in The New Yorker, Dexter Filkins quotes an Afghan Governor: “Mark my words, the moment the Americans leave, the civil war will begin. This country will be divided into 25 or 30 fiefdoms, each with its own government.”

The International Donors’ Conference in Japan has pledged $16 billion that will be spread over four years. Moreover, the USA and its allies are also likely to commit about $4 billion a year to fund and support an estimated 352,000 Afghan army and police force over the next 10 years. However, because of the US and Europe’s fragile economic situation, Afghanistan would be lucky if it could receive just enough to keep going.

As regards national reconciliation, President Hamid Karzai has asked German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, on the sidelines of the Donors’ Conference in Tokyo, for help in getting the Taliban back to the negotiating table. Westerwelle assured Karzai that Berlin was prepared to support the peace process. He has frequently underscored that a political solution is the only way out of the current quagmire. Germany played a similar role in 2010 and 2011.

Over the last few years, Afghanistan has signed strategic agreements with different states, especially with the US and India; Afghanistan has also signed similar agreements with Germany, France, Italy, Britain and Australia. This is a quest for strengthening strategic and political hedge. It seems that the objective of the Afghan-US arrangement is to pass a strong message to Afghanistan’s neighbours - “if you mess with Afghanistan, you will be messing with the USA.” The designation of Afghanistan as a non-Nato ally further reinforces this message. The Indo-Afghan strategic agreement has less to do with building the Afghan National Army and general development than to pressurise Pakistan.

Theoretically, the Ansf is all set to take operational control from the foreign forces by 2014. By the end of 2014, Afghanistan will have a 350,000 strong security force. These soldiers are “better than we thought,” says General John Allen, Commander of the US forces in Afghanistan. However, the worth of the Afghan security forces is articulated by Anthony H. Cordesman, Burke Chair in Strategy at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), on July 24, during his statement before the House Armed Services Subcommittee. He said: “In fact, the effectiveness of Afghan forces during and after transition may well have little to do with the metrics that focus on their strength or abstract estimates of their combat capability and ability to operate without outside support.......Measuring the Ansf’s ability to fight is not nearly as important as measuring its will to fight - and its will to fight for the central government and not some powerbroker or warlord.”

Three countries are poised to play a critical role in shaping Afghanistan’s future. These are: the US, Pakistan and Iran. Iran and Pakistan have close cultural, religious, economic and historical links with Afghanistan. The competition for influence in Afghanistan between Pakistan and Iran after the fall of the Najibullah regime prolonged the Afghan civil war. Apparently, both of them have drawn pertinent lessons. Pakistan is struggling to maintain a balance amongst various ethnic groups in Afghanistan. At the inauguration of the Pakistan Embassy on July 19, the guest list had all the main leaders of the political opposition.

The US continues to maintain a dual policy towards the Haqqani Network. On the one hand, the CIA has been undertaking secret talks with it in the past, whereas on the other, the US House of Representatives has passed a bill, presented by Senator Richard Burr on July 16, 2012, that is a step towards mounting pressure on President Barack Obama to declare it a “terrorist organisation”. On their part, the Haqqanis and Taliban of Afghanistan consider the US and Nato as the invading forces. In their opinion, they are fighting for freedom from these occupiers, in accordance with the UN Charter.

Pakistan has been urging the US to find a political solution of the Afghan issue, as it has failed to do so through military means. Pakistan has, indeed, played a major role in bringing the Haqqanis and US, and the Taliban and US, closer to each other for political dialogue. Meanwhile, the Afghan governance structures established at the Bonn Conference in December 2001 have not been effective. The government in Kabul has failed to meet the basic needs of its citizens because the officials are not responsible to the constituents they serve, but to the system of patronage that keeps them in power. Most Afghans do not directly elect their provincial governors. These officials are appointed by the President and serve at his will. As a result, they have a stake in perpetuating the endemic corruption.

“This year’s pullout of 23,000 American troops from Afghanistan is at the halfway mark,” General John Allen said in a recent interview with the Associated Press. He also said that while the Afghan security forces were increasingly taking the lead, more work needs to be done to shore up their confidence in planning and executing operations. At the end of the year, troop strength in Afghanistan would be 68,000 - the number when President Obama announced the surge in December 2010.

A former US counterinsurgency adviser to the American forces in Afghanistan has been quoted as saying: “It appears we’re just trying to get out and avoid catastrophe.” Dexter Filkins further commented: “.......when the last Americans are due to stop fighting, the Taliban will not be defeated. A Western-style democracy will not be in place. The economy will not be self-sustaining.......And it’s a good bet, even Al-Qaeda, which brought the United States into Afghanistan in the first place, will be carrying on.”

The writer is a retired air commodore and former assistant chief of air staff of the Pakistan Air Force.  At present, he is a member of the visiting faculty at the PAF Air War College, Naval War College         and Quaid-i-Azam University.