The U.S. has sustained more than 2,200 combat deaths and burned
through hundreds of billions of dollars in Afghanistan since 2001, when U.S.
forces were first sent to fight al Qaeda and topple the Taliban-led government providing
it sanctuary. But after all that bloodshed and treasure lost, the U.S. mission
in Afghanistan may soon take a turn for the worse, strategically - and the
results could mean the difference between winning and losing the war.
Just as officials with the U.S.-led military coalition in
Kabul say they have trained the Afghan military well enough to stand on its own
two feet in combat, President Hamid Karzai and U.S. officials are due to
present this week a bilateral security agreement to thousands of Afghan tribal
leaders for their approval. They will do so at a loya jirga, an Afghan assembly
beginning Thursday that could approve or scuttle the deal.
The agreement, reached
Wednesday between Karzai and Secretary of State John Kerry, includes
provisions that will allow the U.S. to protect its troops from prosecution by
Afghanistan's justice system. It remains to be seen, however, whether the deal
will be approved by the loya jirga. And therein lies the rub: Unless Karzai can
corral enough support in his last full year in office to hold the line on his
plan with the U.S., the future of Afghanistan remain in doubt. (Well, even more
in doubt than it would have been without the deal.)
The loya jirga's views are not officially binding, but
Karzai has said repeatedly that the tribal elders there will decide some of the
most controversial pieces of the new security agreement, most notably whether U.S.
forces will be granted prosecutorial immunity. Iraq's unwillingness to do the
same resulted in the U.S. pulling all of its troops from that country in 2011, setting
the stage for widespread bloodshed there this year.
One U.S. official in Kabul told Foreign Policy that
Afghanistan is at a crossroads. Not only is it close to shutting the book on
more than a decade of U.S. combat operations, it also must grapple with a
history in which previous Afghan heads of state, like former King Zahir Shah,
have been accused of being too close to outside forces. That makes it difficult
for Karzai, installed by the U.S. as president in 2001, to rally support.
Nevertheless, deadlines loom. The U.S. has withdrawn
thousands of forces from Afghanistan, and eyes a long-term presence of about
10,000. That would be less than 10 percent of the force that was on the ground
in 2010 and 2011, after President Obama ordered in late 2009 a short-term surge
of forces to fight Taliban fighters and create space and time for the Afghan
National Security Forces to grow. He did so while announcing that all U.S. combat
forces would be removed from the battlefield by the end of 2014, a
split-the-difference decision that infuriated some Americans for putting more
troops in harm's way, and others for telegraphing the U.S. strategy.
The 2014 deadline does have some value, however. One U.S.
official in Kabul monitoring the politics of the situation said it serves as a
"political forcing function," shoving the Afghan and U.S. government toward
reaching a long-term deal, even after widespread outrage in Afghanistan over
the use of air strikes, night raids and other muscular tactics.
"It is forcing all
parties to confront critical issues that are needed in place for the country's
long-term stability and our mutual national security interests," the official
in Kabul said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Former Ambassador Ryan Crocker, who oversaw the U.S.
diplomatic effort in Kabul in 2011 and 2012, told Foreign Policy that the U.S.
isn't losing the war the war in Afghanistan right now, but must step up to make
sure that doesn't become the case.
"It's going to require U.S. leadership," he said. "If we're
not engaged, no one is going to be engaged. If we're not committed, these
agreements will be ink on paper. I worry about the lack of sustained
administration engagement at a high level about Afghanistan."
Nevertheless, even the U.S. government deciding to sign the
bilateral security agreement and continue ponying up money for the war effort
does not guarantee success, Crocker said. It also will hinge, he said, on there
being free and fair election to replace Karzai in 2014 and the U.S. finding a
greater degree of common ground with neighboring Pakistan, which is believed to
harbor senior Taliban leaders.
"With all those ‘ifs,' if they come out right, I think you
would see an Afghanistan on a slow, painful and uneven route to a sustainable
security in a pluralistic society. I just worry that we're setting the stage for a repeat
from a pretty horrible past," Crocker said, a reference to the civil
war in the 1990s that set the stage for the Taliban taking control of Kabul and
al Qaeda establishing terrorist training camps in the countryside.
The fight on the ground
U.S. military officials, for their part, defend the advances they have
watched Afghan forces make in the last few years. To be fair, there are many.
The Afghan National Army now runs independent operations all over the country,
and has grown to include more than 200,000 soldiers. They typically focus on rural
regions of the country that are more dangerous.
The Afghan police, meanwhile, focus on manning security
checkpoints on Afghanistan's major roads and safeguarding major cities like
Kabul and Kandahar. Both are seen now as mostly safe, despite spectacular
coordinated attacks occasionally launched by enemy fighters.
Violence also has broadly plummeted in Helmand and Kandahar
provinces, which have historically been among the most violent, a senior U.S.
military official in Kabul told Foreign Policy. Former Taliban strongholds like
Marjah and Garmser in Helmand province have achieved a level of peace that
villagers and U.S. forces deployed there alike questioned was every possible.
Other regions of the country have seen an uptick in
violence, however, the senior U.S. military official said. The eastern part of
the country has seen a "marginal" increase in insurgent attacks, and quiet
areas in the northern and western parts of the country have seen more
bloodshed, as well. The insurgency's gains were acknowledged in the Pentagon's most
recent report on Afghanistan to Congress, which said it had "consolidated
gains in some of the rural areas in which it has traditionally held power."
One apparent example would be Sangin in Helmand province,
which was the site of fierce fighting this summer as a mix of Taliban fighters,
drug lords and other elements launched
a series of fierce attacks against Afghan forces. In some cases, Afghan
soldiers reportedly refused to leave their bases unless it was absolutely
necessary, ceding ground to enemy fighters.
Army Brig. Gen. Michael Wehr, who oversees U.S. engineer units in
Afghanistan, acknowledged it will be difficult for the Afghan
military to maintain control of the whole country, including some areas where
the U.S. spent millions of dollars building facilities for Afghan forces. The
U.S. counterinsurgency strategy is built on the notion that the military must
clear an area of enemy fighters, hold that territory, than build on the
efforts. But U.S. and Afghan forces have not always been able to do things in
that order, Wehr told Foreign Policy.
is, in fact, a large number of facilities that are in the exact right spot and
are being maintained today," Wehr said. "But there are some locations that are
more of a risk than others. Some of that is that we clear, hold, build, but
we're in fact trying to build where we have not quite cleared, and we're barely
The fight this summer also was
complicated by the staggering number of casualties the Afghan military and
police force took, as they ventured out more and more without their own. More
than 100 personnel were killed some weeks in combat, and dozens in many others,
leading the Pentagon to estimate in its most recent report to Congress that
Afghan casualties had spiked 79 percent in a year, while coalition deaths had
dropped 59 percent in the same time period.
Like their coalition counterparts, Afghan forces are killed
primarily by improvised explosive devices buried in the roads, walls and fields
by insurgent fighters. Coalition forces are training the Afghans to handle the
attacks better, but they do not have the same mine-resistant vehicles the U.S.
uses. Instead, they rely mainly on souped-up Ford Rangers, which provide rugged
transportation, but less protection.
But there are signs of progress, Wehr
said. Afghan forces actually are better at finding IEDs than coalition troops,
relying on tips from villagers and their superior knowledge of the country and
"They are learning the hard way, there
is no doubt about that. Discipline, procedures," Wehr told Foreign Policy. "But
they actually have a better find and clear rate that we do, and that gets into
the intelligence piece, in which they clearly do better than we do in their own
culture. They are succeeding in those areas."
Several U.S. officials in Kabul told
Foreign Policy that the U.S. won't "win" in Afghanistan by 2014, and it needs
to accept that. Rather, coalition hope to hand the mission over to the Afghan
forces at a time when they can maintain at least a stalemate with the Taliban
and other extremist groups, creating space for a possible political deal to be
reached between the insurgent group and the government later. There is no
danger that the Taliban has the ability anymore to mount an attack large enough
to take over the government, but they will continue to launch attacks and
strong-arm civilians to assert their presence, they said.
typically end in a political accommodation between the counter-insurgent and
the insurgent," one senior military official in Kabul said. "The fighting is a
contest of wills to win the populace, and it is designed to create time and
space to reach that political accommodation. I think that's where we are."