Afghanistan War to End By 2014: But the Country May Not Be Ready to Stand Alone

It’s their country now.

This past Friday after meeting with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, President Obama announced that Afghanistan will stand up and take full ownership of its own defense by the end of the year – almost nine months earlier than previously announced. “Our troops will continue to fight alongside the Afghans troops when needed,” Obama said. “But let me say it as plainly as I can: Starting this spring our troops will have a different mission: training, advising, assisting the Afghan forces."

Overlooked in the announcement that American military forces will move into a strictly supportive role was Obama’s statement that he agreed with Karzai that the Afghan government should enter into peace talks with the Taliban, with the Taliban opening an office in Doha, Qatar, in order to discuss the reconciliation process.

Taken together, the statements mean it’s up to the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF); meaning the army, police, border police, and other units now bear responsibility of defending their country against Pakistani invaders, as their government begins to talk with the Taliban about joining the government and re-integrating into daily society.

Under President Bush, the original American and NATO mission was retaliation for 9/11, but within six months the hunt for Osama Bin Laden took a backseat as the Iraq War diverted troops and resources. But in 2009 Obama “surged” troops into Afghanistan; led by 11,000 Marines sent to violent Helmand Province, the goal of the additional troops was to beat back the Taliban while simultaneously train the Afghan forces and help stand up the local and provincial governments.

Obama’s surge was very successful in Helmand; with the Marines, our British allies, and Afghan forces walking 7,000 patrols weekly, their strategy of “clear-hold-build-transition” drove the Taliban out while training both the Afghan forces and politicians in building a relatively secure and successful province. As Marine Commandant Gen James Amos said Sept 2011 “if America wants to see how successful Afghanistan can be; let them come to the Helmand Province.”

There are currently 66,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan. The number was boosted to nearly 100,000 after Obama’s surge, but last September the troops began to return to the United States. The NATO countries followed suit and announced their troops would begin to withdraw also.

As the Afghans continue to take control, U.S. forces will continue drawing down in numbers, with those still in country operating in a support role of training, advising, and logistics. This is a step toward Afghanistan's complete national sovereignty, Obama said, and added, “Soon, nearly 90% of Afghans will live in areas where Afghan forces are in the lead for their own security. This year Afghan forces will take the lead for security across the entire country; by the end of next year the transition will be complete. Afghans will have full responsibility for their security and this war will come to a responsible end."

Under Obama, relations with Karzai cooled as he ended Bush’s blank-check diplomacy and refined the US-NATO mission into one of incapacitating and dismantling al-Qaida so it could no longer attack the West. However that requires a viable Afghanistan government capable of leading the ANSF, as does negotiating with the Taliban to ensure the Talibs (an integral part of Afghan society) rejoin Afghan society on Kabul’s terms.

Obama said Friday that the U.S. has achieved what it set out to do; it’s up to the Afghan government, he said, that has to ensure the security of their country. The United States and the world has invested 2,000+ lives and at least $500 billion of dollars in rebuilding Afghanistan; the big question, therefore, remains the functionality of the Karzai government. Judged one of the world’s most corrupt governments, Karzai seems yet to realize that it’s providing basic services such as clean water, education, and health care that the locals take as evidence they have a working central government, or that a professional army and police respond best to professional leadership.

What the Afghan people want is what Obama’s surge began to deliver in the provinces-workable local governments, jobs, a much better-trained army and police, education, and clinics. A viable Afghan state is do-able; however it’s still an open question of what sort of Afghanistan 10 years of Karzai rule have built when his term comes to an end in 2014.