Arduous path to Afghan 'end-game'

US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta in Afghanistan on 14 March 2012
Image caption US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta has referred to 'the hell of war'

In Afghanistan, the focus now is on the "end game". But the end is in doubt, and tension mounts over the rules of this game.

A much-touted plan for "transition," meant to provide foreign armies with an orderly, honourable exit by 2014, lurches from crisis to crisis. In the last week alone, there seemed to be an incident almost every day.

"The end of the rope," is now President Hamid Karzai's depiction of this imperilled relationship.

That was his angry mood after an emotional meeting with a delegation of tribal elders and villagers who came from Kandahar to discuss last Sunday's night-time massacre of 16 Afghans.

When I called out a question at the end of the gathering, the president clearly wanted to publicly cast doubt on the US account that it was the work of one rogue American soldier who "snapped".

"These horrible activities cannot be tolerated," he declared, in a reference to night raids and other Nato military operations he has repeatedly railed against. A day earlier, he had called on Nato forces to pull out of villages and go back to their bases.

Hardening tone

In public, his US and other Nato allies are scrambling to maintain a confident narrative of "enduring partnership".

In private, they express exasperation with an unpredictable president while trying to focus on their main priority in this end-game: securing enough gains on the battlefield against a resurgent Taliban, and training enough Afghans to continue the fight on their own.

Senior Afghan military officers agree with their Nato counterparts that they are not ready yet. Even the president has been ready to grudgingly discuss military tactics his allies still consider essential, but his tone is clearly hardening.

Still, Nato sources are confident they may finally be able to sign a long-awaited strategic partnership between the US and Afghanistan that would keep some US troops on bases here beyond 2014. There is even hope for a compromise on the most sensitive issue of night raids.

If it is clinched, the achievement would be the crowning moment of the Nato summit set for Chicago in May.

The US is also hoping it can use that occasion to report some progress in their fragile dialogue with the Taliban, even though the Taliban suspended the process this week because of what they called "the shaky, erratic and vague standpoint of the Americans".

But the few months until May are a long time in the midst of what the US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta keeps referring to as "the hell of war".

He has repeatedly expressed regret over the tragic incident in Kandahar. But in the same breath, he has warned it is not the first incident and will not be the last.

Searching questions

Afghans have been invoking an Afghan proverb with similar sentiments, "Every day, it gets worse, it doesn't get better."

I heard it from an Afghan instructor Lt Nasser while he was teaching Afghans at Kabul's Military Training Centre how to throw grenades.

There were loud exclamations of "Allah u Akbar" (God is Great) as plastic versions were hurled at the "dushman" - the enemy.

"We do our best training them but we can't predict what will happen in the future," Lt Nasser remarked philosophically.

Nato soldiers have also been troubled by incidents when Afghans in uniform have opened fire on them.

At what is Afghanistan's main military training centre, the staggering sums and commitment that Nato, and most of all the US, have ploughed into this mission are abundantly evident.

Image caption The massacre allegedly involving Sgt Robert Bales is a huge setback

"The difference is astronomical," marvelled Canadian Major Carl Bennett as he swept his arm across a sprawling compound of training fields laced with roads plied by a constant flow of new military hardware.

"There was nothing here a few years ago."

But when I ask one young Afghan guard about the US military, he blurts a dismissive insult: "kafirs!" (infidels).

Moments later, he added: "There was more respect years ago. Our Afghan leaders also need to do more to build trust."

More than a decade since the Taliban was ousted and Western allies embraced a new relationship with Afghanistan, searching questions are being asked about why this partnership is still marked by so many mishaps and misunderstandings.

At a popular cafe reputed to offer "the best coffee in Kabul" even Afghans who have been able to benefit from Western scholarships and salaries are perplexed.

"It is difficult to digest and understand how, after so many years of engagement, the international community still doesn't realise what Afghans are sensitive about," remarked Suleman Fatimi who has worked both in government and the private sector.

He cited the recent inadvertent burning of the Koran at a US military base as a glaring example.

"We had all hoped for a smooth road until 2014," added Waheed Omer, a former Afghan presidential aide.

"Every incident," he regretted, "takes the ground from under those of us who would like to see a long-term strategic partnership."

Afghans have a wide range of concerns about this end-game that are not just about military engagement.

Some are more worried about what is certain to be a messy presidential election also set for 2014. The last contest was marred by allegations of fraud and Western meddling, and speculation is already growing over whether President Karzai will keep his pledge to stand down.

Others are focused on ensuring badly needed civilian aid does not dry up, too.

Image caption Relatives of those killed in the massacre have berated President Karzai

"The Afghan government is just focusing on survival now," remarked one Western aid official who has spent years in the region. "They're trying to get as much as they can from the international community before the pull out."

And there is growing concern about widespread corruption.

At the Afghan parliament, outspoken MP Ramazon Bashardost declared: "We still need financial and military support. President Karzai couldn't even afford to buy tea for the palace without foreign money!"

Dressed in a white tunic trimmed with the colours of the Afghan Flag, he exclaimed: "The foreigners can stay 100 years if they meet the needs of the Afghan people instead of corrupt warlords."

For now, everyone is just trying to make it through the next two years. They could make all the difference between something which could be called a success, and an utter failure.

"We're in the end game," affirmed Major Bennett", "but I guarantee you that if we pull out now, we will be back here in 20 years, starting all over from scratch."