American president Barack Obama called it an historic moment and commanders running the war referred to it as the final step on the road to Afghanistan’s full independence.
On Wednesday, the thirteen-year operation that the United States called Operation Enduring Freedom passed into history, replaced with a mission that consists purely of advising and assisting Afghan security forces and launching occasional counterterrorism raids on Al Qaeda or Taliban targets.
“Today’s ceremony in Kabul marks a milestone for our country,” President Obama wrote in a statement.
For more than thirteen years, ever since nearly 3,000 innocent lives were taken from us on 9/11, our nation has been at war in Afghanistan. Now, thanks to the extraordinary sacrifices of our men and women in uniform, our combat mission in Afghanistan is ending, and the longest war in American history is coming to a responsible conclusion.
Yet while the politicians in Washington are celebrating that the termination of combat operations, the Afghan and Western soldiers who remain will still be heavily engaged through 2015.
Seen from America, the war may be over. But it really isn’t. The Taliban continue to push into their traditional stronghold in the south and the Afghan security forces continue to suffer a casualty rate one top American commander described as “not sustainable in the long term.”
Therein lies the problem for Obama and his successor. By virtue of the Taliban’s tenacity and the existence of a strategic partnership agreement with the government in Kabul, America will remain in the middle of the action for at least another decade.
All is not well in Afghanistan, even if the foreign troops have determined that the environment is safe enough to scale back.
The Afghans, particularly the police, have born the brunt of the fighting and experienced an increase in armed battles with insurgents who are prepared to roll into the very areas that were cleared by Afghan and Western troops only three or four years ago.
The United Nations mission in Afghanistan has documented (PDF) a 19 percent increase in civilian casualties compared to 2013. Afghan officials say approximately 5,000 members of the army and police have been killed in action throughout last year, making it one of the deadliest in the entire war.
The numbers could get worse now that foreign troops are no longer fighting on the frontlines and American assets and enablers such as air support, drones and medivac are preparing to fly back to Kuwait for another engagement in Iraq.
Attrition within the Afghan army makes the situation worse. According to a quarterly report (PDF) from the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, more than 36,000 personnel were dropped from the force between August 2013 to September 2014.
Attrition, retention, funding, retaining control over areas in remote regions and the proliferation of poppy cultivation in the southern and western provinces have all been incredible hinderances to the Afghan government’s ability to hold a monopoly on violence. The presence of 12,000 NATO trainers in 2015, half of whom are due to withdraw the following year, may give the Afghan forces a psychological boost, in addition to a crucial training component for an army that continues to battle an insurgency conducting increasingly bold attacks. The American combat mission is over but combat will occur throughout 2015 and probably even after all American troops have left the country in another two years.