by Mai Phuong
As American troops prepare to scale down operations in Afghanistan, the signing of a deal on nighttime military raids by the US and its allies has helped restore a modicum of trust between Washington and Kabul, but much more needs to be done to ensure lasting peace and security in the war-wracked central Asian country.
In a positive context, the deal reached earlier this week should help to resolve a major source of friction between the two countries after vociferous attacks by Afghan soldiers on NATO troops over their recent conduct, and particularly after the burning of Korans at a US military base.
Through the deal, which puts Afghans in charge of night operations and gives them veto power over operations to capture and kill insurgents, the US and its long-standing ally in the fight against the Taliban hope to put disputes over the killing of civilians behind them.
The agreement was signed by Afghan Defence Minister General Abdul Rahim Wardak and NATO's top commander in the country, US Marine General John Allen.
Wardak said during a news conference that from now on, all night raids would be conducted by the Afghan national army, police and intelligence personnel in close co-ordination with Afghan judicial authorities.
The deal is a victory for Afghan President Hamid Karzai who has been critisising many aspects of US-NATO operations – particularly night raids, which he has said were a clear violation of Afghan sovereignty.
Night raids have been a bone of contention between NATO commanders and President Karzai, who said they had resulted in an unacceptable number of civilian casualties and driven a wedge between local populations and the government, as well as international forces.
Karzai had earlier stated that calling off night raids was one of several pre-conditions to signing a strategic agreement with the US.
The deal should pave the way for a strategic partnership between Washington and Kabul after most of the 130,000 US-led NATO troops have left.
The latest agreement comes after another major hurdle to a long-term strategic partnership was removed last month when the US agreed to hand over control of its largest military prison in the country.
The deal comes at a critical time for the Afghan leadership, who are struggling hard to maintain unity inside the country while trying to build regional trust. But it raised the question of whether it will boost national security or just open the door to Taliban insurgents.
Observers are also sceptical that Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) will be able to take the fight to the Taliban as effectively as foreign forces have done.
NATO military officials claimed that night raids were the most effective way of disabling the Taliban.
Now, changes in Afghan military operations with less interference from US forces may provide the Taliban with more preferable conditions to infiltrate residential areas during the night and carry out terrorist attacks during the day.
This may produce counter-productive results in terms of civilian casualties because the Taliban are responsible for a much higher number than those recorded in operations carried out by NATO and Afghan forces together or separately.
Concerns over Taliban reprisals
American troops are set to leave Afghanistan, with President Barack Obama announcing recently that he would withdraw a total of 33,000 troops by this summer, returning numbers to 2009 levels. He also promised even more troop withdrawals after that.
What could become a key policy question for Afghans, is what will happen after they depart?
Many believe that the night raid deal would only serve the immediate goals of US-Afghan military bilateral consolidation, but could not ensure national security in the long term.
On Tuesday just two days after the signing, Taliban suicide bombers killed at least 16 people as they stepped up their fight against Afghan forces, who are slowly taking over from US and international troops.
Attacks this week have included deadly bombings far from the main theatres in the south and east, underscoring that the Taliban and its allies retain the capability to strike over wide areas of the country. The Afghan army and police are now in charge of security for areas home to half the nation's population, with coalition forces in a support role.
The first and deadliest of Tuesday's attacks took place in Herat, a relatively peaceful province whose capital and many districts are already under Afghan security control, according to the Associated Press.
Afghan security forces now number about 330,000 and are to peak at 352,000 by the end of the year. They are expected to take over much of the fighting as the US withdraws an additional 23,000 troops by the end of September, leaving 68,000 remaining.
Military officials and Gen. John Allen, the top US and coalition commander in Afghanistan, expect the Taliban to take advantage of the spring and summer fighting seasons to try to undermine the security transition.
Attacks have been increasing since March 21, the first day of spring and the beginning of the Afghan calendar year.
Some of the attacks have taken place in areas that are usually quiet, including the capital of northern Faryab province. A suicide bombing there on April 4 killed at least 10 people, including three American soldiers.
Afghans are following developments with obvious concern as national security remains extremely fragile.
The US should pledge to support the elected Afghan central government and sympathetic provincial leaders with air power, intelligence support and other critical capabilities to prevent a Taliban takeover.
It may not prevent extremists from making local gains in the countryside – which they seem to be doing anyway – but it would stop them from taking control of the entire country and again making it a headquarters for global terrorism.
Observers say Kabul and Washington must use the goodwill created by the latest deal to solve other disputes between the two sides, and as the date for the US pullout draws near, closer co-operation for the benefit of Afghan peace and security is the only way both sides can fulfil their objectives. — VNS