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U.S. special forces leave key Afghan province as all war-weary sides look for clues

Special to WorldTribune.com

By Brian M Downing

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has ordered U.S. special forces out of Wardak province. It lies southwest of and near to Kabul, where he resides – isolated and dependent on foreign protection.

The U.S. soldiers are said to have assisted local forces in kidnapping locals and beheading one of them. The U.S. is investigating Karzai’s claims and accepting his order to withdraw special forces from the strategically situated province. A preliminary report, however, finds no evidence to support Karzai’s claims.

U.S. soldiers on patrol in the strategic Wardak Province.  /AFP

U.S. soldiers on patrol in the strategic Wardak Province. /AFP

Wardak province has been generally aligned with Kabul. One of its Pashtun powerholders serves as defense minister and the Shia Hazara populace is adamantly opposed to the Taliban, which they see – with good reason – as an intolerant and oppressive Sunni cult. Nonetheless, the Taliban have been able to establish a foothold there, with disparate affiliated bands operating freely at night in many of the province’s districts.

Things are not always as they appear in politics – and almost never as they appear in Afghan politics.

As rumors of negotiations with the Taliban swirl, it might be wondered if Karzai’s order were part of a deal, or at least a feeler, directed at the Taliban, one that conveys growing distance between Kabul and the U.S.

Alternately, the move may be an unpopular president’s attempt to rally popular support amid a long stalemate and a tenure in power with few positive achievements. However, it may simply be another of the president’s incomprehensible actions.

Northern peoples – Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras – will be wary of Karzai’s expulsion of U.S. special forces. Northerners have come to see him as artless and shortsighted and his efforts to negotiate with the Taliban as unwise and worrisome. This concern will be especially prominent among the Shia Hazaras, who have been mercilessly attacked by Taliban and Sunni groups in Afghanistan and more recently by the Taliban’s kindred Sunni group in Pakistan, Lashkar-i-Jhangvi.

Behind the Taliban and Lashkar-i-Jhangvi stands the Pakistani military, who see their religious zealotry as useful to national integration and to thwarting Indian influence in the region.

The northern peoples fear that a hasty settlement with the Taliban will leave the country vulnerable to breakdown and the same Taliban conquest and domination that occurred in the mid-1990s, which led to years of civil war and harsh rule.

Though only U.S. special forces have been ordered out of Wardak province, what may follow raises the question of what will happen there – and elsewhere too – once U.S. combat troops are gone by the end of 2014.

Will the lax, ethnically-divided Afghan army be able to hold up against the Taliban?

A clue may lie in the Soviet experience of the late 1980s. When the Red Army left a province, the various mujahideen bands suffered high desertion rates, as most fighters saw the foreigners’ withdrawal as victory. Mujahideen leaders, who had been united by little except a common enemy, found themselves fighting among themselves.

There is, of course, no guarantee that the withdrawal of U.S. and other ISAF forces will lead to desertions in, and conflict within, the Taliban. However, most fighters are not as dogmatic and set on reconquering Afghanistan (to the extent the Taliban did in the 1990s) as are many in the Taliban high council. Further, the country, especially the Pashtun south, is war weary.

Wardak will be watched closely by the militaries of ISAF countries, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Paradoxically, out of protracted failure may come a promising sign or two.

Brian M Downing is a political/military analyst and author of The Military Revolution and Political Change and The Paths of Glory: War and Social Change in America from the Great War to Vietnam. He can be reached at brianmdowning@gmail.com.

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