As U.S.-led international combat troops prepare to withdraw from Afghanistan, officials in neighboring Pakistan are airing reservations about the drawdown, reporting increased militant violence and skepticism about the effectiveness of the Afghan National Security Force (ANSF).
Citing a fresh flow of Afghan refugees and investment in border cities such as Peshawar, Pakistani officials say the trend indicates Afghan skepticism about the future of their own war-ravaged nation after most international forces withdraw by the end of 2014.
Speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York on Wednesday, Pakistan Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar called for a “responsible transition” and warned U.S. and NATO forces against departing Afghanistan “in a rush.”
“One major objective of a foreign military presence in Afghanistan was to reduce the ideological space that exists for [an] extremist mindset," she said, questioning whether the U.S.-led intervention has achieved its stated goals. "I think if you look in the last 10 years, the space of the extremists – the ideological space for them – has only increased.”
Citing violence on both sides of the border, the foreign minister emphasized the staggering number of Pakistan’s suicide-bomb casualties since U.S. intervention in the wake of September 11, 2001.
“Before 2001 there was only one suicide bomb which [inaudible] inside Pakistan territory,” said Khar, explaining that she had “lost count” of the total number that have occurred since then. “But only in the last two or three years there has been more than 300 suicide bomb attacks which have caused, altogether, in the last 10 years, about 30,000 civilians have died in Pakistan because of suicide bomb attacks, et cetera. Six thousand of our soldiers, paramilitary forces, et cetera.”
“The other side of the border within Afghanistan is becoming less well-managed than it was two years back," she added, expressing concern about cross-border military raids on Pakistani targets, describing the situation as “not very confidence-inspiring.”
"The green-on-blue attacks: You know, they might scare you as Americans but they haunt us as Pakistanis, because what that means is that institutions that we are trying to build – the ANSF, et cetera – are not maybe as professional a military or an army that you ideally would want to think.”
But Afghan officials and some observers dismiss fears of a return to the chaos of the 1990s era that followed withdrawal of Soviet forces. Mozammil Shinwari, Afghanistan's Deputy Minister for Trade, says the country has made significant progress in areas like the economy, politics, security and human rights.
“We are quite hopeful because the resources, especially the human resources, that we were lacking 10 years back, now ... have enough potential inside Afghanistan," he said, adding that an Afghan security forces "system has been developed" alongside economic development. "We are quite keen and we are quite hopeful, and we are sure that Afghanistan will develop. So I don’t think any problem will happen in the future and after 2014. We will have a prosperous Afghanistan.”
For Kabul-based independent political commentator Said Mohammad Azam, the question of whether violence will persist in post-2014 Afghanistan is less important than considering socio-economic conditions in which it would unfold.
“I think it is widely believed that [fighting] will continue, but it will not lead to an immediate collapse of the Afghan regime, the way it happened after the withdrawal of the Soviet Union," he said. "The reason is because, for the next ten years, starting from 2015, the international community has already provided funding [to] keep the national army and police intact, and also [there will be] enough budget for developmental projects.”
U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan James Cunningham told reporters Thursday it is important for the Afghan government to start peace talks with the Taliban started as soon as possible.
“We are quite clear that, at the end, stability and peace in the region will require a peace agreement that the states in the region will have an important role in supporting," he said. "We will continue our efforts not just with Pakistan but other countries in the region and other countries that are interested to move in that direction and to support a genuine peace process that will finally bring peace and stability to Afghanistan.”
While it is hoped that Islamabad’s late-2012 decision to release more than two-dozen members of the Afghan Taliban will help bring the insurgents to the negotiating table, signs of an impending peace process have yet to be seen.
Kabul welcomed the move, and Washington has also been appreciative of bilateral cooperation between Afghanistan and Pakistan to promote peace and reconciliation efforts.
Peter Cobus contributed to this report from Washington.