Remembering Afghanistan: Entering the 12th Year of the War


2012-10-09 by Richard Weitz

We are now entering the twelfth year of U.S. involvement in the Afghanistan War, with the United States suffering its 2,000th military death earlier this month.

On October 7, 2001, the U.S. military first invaded Afghanistan to topple the Taliban. This year at least 257 Americans have been killed in Afghanistan.

At its peak, 130,000 NAO troops from 50 countries were defending the Western-backed government of President Hamid Karzai. Some 1,200 NATO soldiers have been killed in the war, along with the two thousand Americans. The troops have now begun pulling out and most foreign combat forces will be gone by the end of 2014. The United States, by far the largest troop contributor to the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan (ISAF), withdrew 10,000 troops in 2011 and has withdrawn some 20,000 troops so far this year. Further withdrawals will occur in 2013 and 2014.

The Pentagon would like to keep some 10,000 to 20,000 troops in Afghanistan beyond then, but several questions remain unresolved, including how many U.S. troops would remain after 2014 and what missions they can undertake.

Kabul and Washington must specify these conditions in a separate and more detailed security agreement that is still under negotiation. The agreement would also provide U.S. soldiers with legal immunity from local laws. Most likely they soldiers will be military trainers and Special Operations Forces, who will concentrate on capturing or killing terrorists in Afghanistan or in neighboring countries.

The Taliban has issued a statement claiming that NATO forces are “fleeing Afghanistan” in “humiliation and disgrace.” In their view, “With the help of Allah, the valiant Afghans under the Jihadi leadership of Islamic Emirate defeated the military might and numerous strategies of America and NATO alliance. And now after eleven years of unceasing terror, tyranny, crimes and savagery, they are fleeing Afghanistan with such humiliation and disgrace that they are struggling to provide an explanation.”

A more objective assessment of the conflict is in order.

Osprey in Afghanistan (Credit: USMC)
We are now entering the twelfth year of U.S. involvement in the Afghanistan War, with the United States suffering its 2,000th military death earlier this month. 2014 is a key date on the calendar. Osprey seen operating in Afghanistan (Credit: USMC)

Since August 2003, the United States has been the lead force provider of the NATO-led ISAF. Its main objectives in Afghanistan have been to enable the Afghan authorities to provide effective security throughout the country and ensure that Afghanistan will never again become a terrorist safe haven.

After the Taliban regrouped, the Obama administration launched a double surge and sent two waves of tens of thousands of additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan. Some NATO members and Partner countries also sent additional troops.

The Surge has seen localized tactical progress, especially in southern Afghanistan. The Taliban ceased its large-scale unit-level attacks and has to return to terrorist and demonstration attacks. Taliban fighters were forced to withdraw from some strongholds and the people there have reconnected with Afghan government services. After the expected upsurge in fighting, the Surge has resulted in declining ISAF casualties as the Taliban has adopted a lower military profile.

The Surge has also created space to rebuild the Afghan National Army. In 2011, NATO formally launched a plan to transition to the Afghan government full responsibility for maintaining security, with the intensified plan to train and equip the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). The ensuing period has seen a declining number of NATO forces shifting to a support role of training, advising, and assisting them.

The May 2012 Chicago summit confirmed this timetable and established a roadmap for NATO’s post-2014 role in Afghanistan as well as an agreement on the size, cost and sustainment of the ANSF beyond that year. The transition is on schedule, with ISAF’s mission on track to end in 2014. NATO will then lead a follow-on mission, whose details remain to be defined, to continue to develop ANSF capacity. Wider cooperation between NATO and Afghanistan will also continue under the Enduring Partnership agreement, signed at the 2010 Lisbon Summit.

On May 2, 2012, the United States and Afghanistan signed a new Strategic Partnership Agreement. According to its terms, the United States pledged 10 years of social and economic development, security assistance, and regional cooperation beyond the planned 2014 withdrawal date for all U.S. combat troops. The United States is not seeking permanent military bases; only access to Afghan facilities.

In return, the Afghan government commits to further domestic reforms and capacity-building programs aimed at addressing the underlying socioeconomic, political, and other drivers of the insurgency. An important focus is to strengthen Afghan public administration, the rule of law, and anti-corruption measures. Little evident progress has been made in any of these dimensions.

After almost a decade of fighting, Western leaders are eager to reduce their military, financial, and other costly support for the Kabul government.

Relations between the Obama administration and Karzai remain strained, as confirmed most recently in the testy remarks by U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta about Karzai’s displaying insufficient gratitude for the 2,000 American soldiers who have died defending Karzai’s government.

Perhaps the most progress has been made in the military dimension.

There have been measurable progress in terms of some metrics such as territory under government control, captured or killed Taliban or al-Qaeda leaders, and the transition of more provinces to Afghan government lead. The security transition is definitely occurring, with Afghan security forces are running five times higher than those for NATO, as the Afghans take on increasing responsibilities before the Western withdrawal.  ISAF has expanded the size of the ANSF to 352,000 well ahead of schedule.

Yet, a classified National Intelligence Estimate issued in December 2011 reportedly warns of “dire” outcomes and protracted “stalemate” unless the ANSF made greater progress. Further work is needed to teach the Afghans such skills as infantry fighting, communications, gunnery, engineering, weapons maintenance, and logistics.

And that assessment appeared before a series of setbacks that included the burning Qurans inside Bagram Air Base by American soldiers, the massacre of 17 Afghan civilians by one maverick American soldier, the circulation of photographs of U.S. forces defiling the bodies of dead Afghan Taliban, and most recently the posting on the Internet of a American-made film considered as insulting to Islam. These developments have contributed to a surge of incidents in which Afghan soldiers turned their weapons on U.S. or other NATO forces in ugly cases of “green-on-blue” fratricide.

A number of military problems confront the plans to transition to Afghan government leadership. Limited Afghan capacity raises doubts whether government troops can lead the crucial night raids against the insurgents or manage the Taliban detention facilities properly. Taliban fighters can still make major shows of force in Kabul and other Afghan cities while drawing sustenance from their sanctuaries in northwest Pakistan.

All the Afghan security forces are weakened by the corrupt practices and ethnic tensions that pervade Afghan society.

The Afghan National Police needs even more extensive help before it can fulfill its important mission of preventing the Taliban from returning to areas conquered by the Afghan Army. It does not help if the Army clears the Taliban from a locality but the police cannot hold it. The police are also supposed to provide intelligence on Taliban activity in their locality. In the absence of strong government security forces, independent centers of power are reemerging in many localities under powerful warlords who control community militias. They make deals with both combatants while protecting their core economic interests, which often include local poppy plantations.

Furthermore, efforts to negotiate a peace settlement with the Taliban have stalled with both sides treating the negotiations as an extension of the conflict through verbal means. The Obama administration wanted a peace agreement with the Afghan Taliban, but only if they meet the U.S. red lines of renouncing violence and accepting the Afghan constitution, including democratic elections and gender rights.

The Taliban have suspended all direct negotiations with Western governments and Karzai. They seem content to try to run down the clock before negotiating while winning a war of attrition. They can continue to maintain a major presence throughout the country by both intimidating people and offering them better services than the corrupt and underresourced Afghan government bodies.

This strategy is not unreasonable. Polls show declining support for the Afghan War among Western publics as well as indications that legislatures in Europe, the U.S. Congress, and elsewhere will not fully fund whatever pledges their governments make to Karzai’s government.

Even if fully funded, NATO countries plans to reduce the 352,000-man ANSF to a more sustainable level of around 230,000 men, a process that will release thousands of armed men into the ranks of the unemployed, some of whom will sell their skills to the Taliban. 

Sustaining even a smaller ANSF will require that the United States and its allies make greater progress in developing Afghanistan’s economic potential to wean Afghans off narcotics trafficking and generate the increased government revenue needed to sustain the ANSF.