Afghans Face Fighting Taliban Without Western Help

The hasty U.S. troop withdrawal leaves Afghanistan vulnerable to Taliban. Here, U.S. soldiers take sealed ballot boxes to Kabul. Noorullah Shirzada/AFP/Getty

Will Afghanistan, like Iraq, be deserted by the West to fend off extremist groups on its own? The most recent political crisis in the country, which once hosted the perpetrators of the attacks of September 11, the most deadly terrorist assault on American soil, raises new doubts about future presence of United States and NATO forces there.

President Barack Obama has said that unless a new security agreement is signed with the government in Kabul by the end of this year, America will withdraw the remaining troops deployed in Afghanistan, fulfilling his campaign promise to "end" the war by 2014.

The outgoing Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, reneged on an agreement to sign a new pact to facilitate the presence of a residual NATO force in Afghanistan. And while the original agreement, signed in the aftermath of NATO's 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, remains in effect, administration officials have indicated that a new pact must be signed with the incoming Afghan government if troops are to remain.

Without American troops stationed in Afgahistan, a real danger exists that the Taliban, which ruled the country until the U.S. invasion, will return, along with other extremist groups like Al-Qaeda, Afghanistan watchers suggest. To avert that danger, last month Secretary of State John Kerry nudged Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani, the top contenders to replace Karzai, into an agreement to assure that one of them would be declared president before this week's NATO summit in Wales. There, the Americans hoped, the Afghan president-elect would negotiate a new bilateral security agreement (BSA) with the U.S., allowing a residual force to remain in Afghanistan beyond 2014.

But the agreement that Kerry supervised last month seemed on the verge of unraveling last month. As a United Nations team in Afghanistan conducted a nationwide ballot recount, Abdullah abruptly withdrew his representatives from the process. The withdrawal was "regrettable," the deputy head of the U.N.'s Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), Nicholas "Fink" Haysom, told reporters. But he added that the recount would continue nevertheless.

After Abdullah's observers left, accusing the U.N. of irregularities in the recount as they went, representatives of Ashraf Ghani accepted a U.N. request that they, too, withdraw from the process to avoid the suggestion that the recount may be biased. The recount seemed unlikely to be completed in time for the NATO summit. "A rigorous and credible audit [requires] time, but could be completed around September 10," said Jan Kubis, UNAMA's chief. "Following all necessary steps, as required by law, the inauguration of the new president should then be possible soon after."

An Afghan man watches the crowd supporting presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah during a campaign rally at a stadium in the northwestern city of Herat on April 1, 2014 Behrouz Mehri/AFP/Getty

A BSA may well be signed later, independently of the NATO summit, but the new eruption of acrimony between the two candidates indicates that it may be difficult to forming an Afghan government capable of overcoming the hostility to the presence of foreign troops from a significant number of political factions in the country.

"We need an agreement so we don't have another Iraq on our hands," an Afghan diplomat told me before the latest political crisis started. He said that both presidential candidates had vowed they would sign a pact with America, reflecting the growing understanding among the ruling circles in Kabul that unless a NATO military contingency remains in the country, it could once again descend into an Iraq-like chaos, making it extremely vulnerable to extremists.

The specter of another Iraq looms large. All American troops were withdrawn in 2011, after Baghdad and Washington failed to sign an agreement to assure immunity for US troops from Iraqi legal claims. As Obama put it recently, "Politically [the Iraqis] could not pass the kind of laws that would be required to protect our troops in Iraq."

But now, even without a legally binding agreement, American military advisers are slowly returning to Iraq and the U.S. military is conducting aerial assaults on Islamic State—the group formerly known as ISIS—terrorists there. Some of the president's critics say that the vacuum created by the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq was soon followed by a political environment that facilitated the rise of extremist groups like ISIS. A similar danger, they warn, exists in Afghanistan as well.

Like Iraq, Afghanistan is "a divided country with a fragile democracy and no viable power-sharing agreement between fighting political factions," says Vali Nasr, dean of the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. And just like Iraq, Afghanistan suffers from "weak state institutions confronting an insurgency, and a U.S. [that is] keen to leave."

Nasr, a former senior State Department adviser in the Obama administration, warns that "the same scenario that unfolded in Iraq could unfold in Afghanistan. In the wake of the U.S. departure, the political process could implode, the Afghan army disintegrate and extremists fill the vacuum." The Taliban could soon retake crucial parts of the country beyond the border areas they currently control. They "may not capture Kabul," Nasr says, but they "could take over large swaths of southern and eastern Afghanistan."

That danger grew significantly last month when the recount process was thrown into turmoil—and with it the prospect of a peaceful transfer of power from Karzai to his successor. Abdullah received the highest number of votes in the presidential election that was held in April, but he fell short of getting the required 50 percent of all votes cast, forcing a runoff election in June. Ghani was declared winner of that vote, but Abdullah contested the results and refused to concede, citing widespread voter fraud and ballot box irregularities.

Several attempts to create a recount process that would satisfy both camps fell apart, and in early August Kerry flew to Kabul for a meeting with the two sparring presidential candidates. In a joint press conference, Kerry and the two men tried to present a unified front, with Ghani saying that in the meetings with Kerry he and Abdullah were practically "completing each other's sentences."

The compromise they reached, beyond agreeing a recount under U.N. auspices, included a vow that whoever wins the recount would give an unspecified role in government to the loser. "It is critical for both candidates to do what they just said, which is to move beyond the campaign and move into the process of governing," Kerry said. "One of these men is going to be president. But both of these men are going to be critical to the future of Afghanistan."

Haysom, who last month said he would continue the recount process come what may, indicated that the U.N. still believes that a unity government is possible. An "audit and the formation of a government of national unity are vital pillars to achieve the credible electoral outcome and a peaceful transfer of power that millions of Afghans voted for," he said.

Both candidates agreed not only to abide by the outcome of the recount but also that the winner would "immediately form a government, and that the other individual would be a part of that effort," the State Department's spokeswoman, Jen Psaki said last month. But with the breakdown of relations surrounding the recount, the hope that they will abide by the outcome now seem bleaker—as does the future of Afghanistan.

Follow Benny Avni on Twitter: @bennyavni