With all 33,000 troops involved in the surge out of the country, American and NATO officials are slowly coming to the realization that the war in Afghanistan is finally drawing to a close. Eleven years, thousands of coalition deaths and billions of dollars later, much of the public in countries contributing troops to the Afghan mission are waiting for the day when their loved ones return home.
The campaign in Afghanistan, originally concentrated on crushing Al Qaeda and overthrowing the Taliban, has long been an unpopular war as the operation broadened to include building up an Afghan army and safeguarding the Afghan government. Yet the public’s low morale has not sapped the morale of the men and women actually doing the fighting. To the commanders prosecuting the war effort and the nations involved, ensuring that Afghanistan is left with a relatively stable security environment is seen as a prerequisite for keeping Islamist militants at bay.
That job has become far more important for NATO as the 2014 withdrawal deadline inches closer. This was made abundantly clear in the Defense Department’s latest assessment (PDF) about the war released this week in which Afghanistan was broadly portrayed as a mixed bag. Afghans are generally more safe from the Taliban than they once were but the picture is clouded by a tenacious and stubborn insurgency that continues to produce recruits and refuses to die.
First, the good news. After years of administering territory in the south and east of the country, the Taliban has lost much of its ability to intimidate the Afghan population in areas that have traditionally been viewed as their safe havens. Taliban attacks in Kandahar, the birthplace of the movement, decreased by 62 percent from May to September 2012 compared to the same time last year. The capital, Kabul, is now the safest city in Afghanistan with Taliban and Haqqani militants finding it especially difficult to conduct major operations before being caught.
The Afghan National Security Forces have grown by some 80,000 men during the years of the surge and the Afghan army is taking the lead in the vast majority of combat operations. The additional manpower of and increased aggression by the local forces has also had the effect of pushing Taliban influence further away from the cities where most of the political power is based.
The bad news is that the insurgents retain a capability to strike Afghan government targets throughout the country and are expanding their presence in the north and west. Pakistan continues to be a place where the insurgents can train, rest and regenerate. President Hamid Karzai’s administration in Kabul remains infected by corruption in the ministries.
The moral of the story is that progress in Afghanistan is indeed occurring but there is still a lot of work to be done.
Through the Obama Administration’s partnership agreement with Afghan officials, the United States will be committed to the country’s stability and prosperity for at least another decade. Yet the pool of resources that Washington and NATO can use to push Kabul into making greater improvements in governance and development will only get lower as time goes by. International help will be there but the Afghans themselves have to make the tough decisions needed to build a government that is respected by all its people.
Right now, denting the Taliban’s momentum is a core goal for NATO. After 2014, the priority for the foreign soldiers that remain will be to keep Al Qaeda running for their lives. As much as the West would like to see the Taliban gone once and for all, that dream will not happen before 2014. When that date comes, it will be the Afghan government’s responsibility to deal with them.