Arif Rafiq writes: By the end of this summer, the 30,000 U.S. troops “surged” into Afghanistan by President Barack Obama’s administration will have returned home. And according to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, the remaining 68,000 American soldiers could end their combat role in Afghanistan by mid-2013, more than a year ahead of the White House’s deadline for leaving the country.
America’s war in Afghanistan is by no means over, but its end has already begun. That reality is clear to all Afghan factional chiefs and power brokers, who are preparing for the transition to a post-American Afghanistan. As Afghanistan’s alliances and power dynamics shift, the risk of cvil, ethnic conflict breaking out in the country rises — endangering not only Afghans, but their Pakistani neighbors as well. And ironically, talk of peace and a U.S. withdrawal is contributing to a widening gap between key Afghan factions, which, if not properly contained, could lead to a renewed civil war.
President Hamid Karzai’s intentions remain one potential source of instability looming in Afghanistan’s future. Karzai has said that he will retire from public office in 2014, but many Afghans believe he will remain in power through unconventional or extra-constitutional measures. The president reportedly supported U.S. plans to accelerate the withdrawal by a year, lending weight to the theory that he is looking for greater maneuverability to prolong his rule.
If Karzai steps down, his replacement — should one not come from his own family — is likely to adopt a more hostile approach toward the Taliban, increasing the odds that the insurgency will fester. Abdullah Abdullah, who came in second in the rigged 2009 elections and could throw his hat in the ring once again, is a major Taliban opponent. But if Karzai seeks to stick around, doing so will be no cakewalk. Karzai will face stiff resistance from both a parliament that increasingly demands an expansion of its oversight powers and a rejuvenated political opposition, the National Front for Afghanistan (NFA).