Afghanistan will likely plunge into civil and regional war if the United States does not leave a residual force of 20,000 to 30,000 troops in the country after 2014, along with significant economic aid, a senior Afghan opposition figure said Thursday.

(Courtesy CSIS)

“The state will disintegrate” and Afghan security forces will break into factions, said Mohammad Hanif Atmar, a former minister in the government of President Hamid Karzai. “It is the perfect scenario for a proxy-led civil war” among regional players including Pakistan and Iran.”

A “significant part” of Afghanistan, he said, would be “controlled by insurgents.”

Karzai fired Atmar as interior minister in 2010, ostensibly for security lapses that allowed insurgents to attack a loya jirga, or nationwide assembly, being held in Kabul. Speculation over his departure at the time centered on Atmar’s skepticism about government plans to open peace talks with the Taliban.

A favorite of U.S. officials, Atmar recently helped found “Truth and Justice,” a multi-ethnic political party with a reformist agenda that hopes to challenge both Karzai and the current leading opposition group, “Change and Hope,” headed by former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah.

In remarks at the Washington-based Center for Security and International Studies, Atmar painted a darker picture of the current state of the Afghanistan war than has the Obama administration.

While he agreed that the U.S. troop surge had brought security gains against Taliban forces in the southern part of the country, “we do not see the same progress in the east, the southeast, or even the west,” he said. Taliban momentum in those areas, he said, has not been reversed, and the overall number of insurgent attacks countrywide has remained at about 500 per month for the past year.

Although the administration has described recent gains in building a regional consensus on Afghanistan’s future, including at a recent regional conference in Istanbul attended by Pakistan, Iran, Russia, China and the Central Asian republics, Atmar saw regional consensus declining. With the exception of India, he said, most countries in the region do not support an ongoing U.S. military presence in Afghanistan.

Atmar said he saw no evidence that the Taliban and affiliated groups were moving toward the negotiating table.

“Frankly speaking, it doesn’t work,” he said, adding that there was little chance of a negotiated peace as long as Pakistan continued to allow insurgent sanctuaries inside its border.

Overall, he said he saw two possible future scenarios for Afghanistan. Failure, he said, will result from “premature drawdown, a significant reduction in economic assistance, no change in [Afghan] leaders’ policies, and a vacuum filled by regional actors” in which “a significant part of the country is controlled by insurgents.”

A successful scenario, he said, will require a U.S. drawdown that “is planned but not hurried,” and will leave 20,000 to 30,000 troops as a residual force, along with a “reasonable level of economic assistance” and reforms to end official corruption in Afghanistan.

If those elements are in place, he said, Pakistan’s cooperation would be desirable but not essential.

The Obama administration is currently negotiating a strategic partnership agreement with Afghanistan that will establish a framework for relations beyond the end of 2014, when NATO partners have agreed that all combat troops will be gone. Of the 150,000 foreign troops now in Afghanistan, nearly 100,000 are American, a number that Obama has said he will reduce by 33,000 by next September. The slope of withdrawal beyond next fall is yet to be determined.

The administration has said it hopes to retain a long-term presence in Afghanistan beyond 2014 to conduct counterterrorism operations and continue training and advising Afghan forces. But it has not said how many troops it wants to remain.

Karzai is conducting a loya jirga in Kabul this week to “consult” with the Afghan people on the agreement. On Wednesday, he said a longterm U.S. presence would be allowed as long as American troops stop conducting operations at night, searching homes and detaining Afghans.

Atmar said that “Karzai is right on night raids and detentions,” but that he disagreed that those conditions must be met immediately.

“We know that the survival of our nation depends on partnership with the United States,” he said. “If Afghans understand there is no partnership with the U.S., that their future is with Pakistan and Iran and others in the region, they are not going to bother about democracy because they are not going to have a democracy.”