Summer 2013 brought one of the most violent fighting seasons in Afghanistan since the US military and state-building effort began in 2001. On the cusp of the momentous 2014 presidential elections and a year before the majority of international coalition forces would depart from the country in the midst of transferring security functions to the coalition-supported Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), the Taliban is dug in and still ferocious. It is testing the Afghan security forces, which since June 2013 are supposed to be taking the lead in providing security throughout the country while international forces are increasingly disengaging from combat and departing Afghanistan.
The military plans of the Obama administration (including the 2010 surge) assumed that by the time the coalition forces began scaling down their presence, they would be able to hand over to the Afghans large parts of the country’s territory secured and cleared of the Taliban. Four and a half years later, some real progress had been achieved, such as in central Helmand and Kandahar—both of which used to be either intense battle zones or under the Taliban’s sway. But the territory cleared of the Taliban is much smaller than had been projected. The US and NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) are handing the Afghans a stalemated war, attempting to increase the ANSF’s capacity enough to beat back the Taliban insurgency while simultaneously constricting their own capacity to operate in Afghanistan. With every passing day, the Taliban adage “foreigners have watches while the Taliban has the time” is felt more strongly in the hot and dusty Afghan summer air.
Continued US Interests in a Complex Region
Yes, the US and its international partners in Afghanistan are exhausted and focused on leaving. But however difficult the post-2014 transition and however stable or violent the country will become in the next several years, a variety of US and international interests will still be at stake in Afghanistan for a long time. They include regional stability and competition, counterterrorism objectives, and humanitarian and moral interests — as well as obligations.
Even if no international troops are left in Afghanistan after 2014 and the influence of the coalition countries will have diminished, the US and the international community will continue to be engaged in Afghanistan. Some countries, such as Pakistan and India, may once again turn Afghanistan into the location of their proxy wars. Iran, Russia, and perhaps even China too will compete with each other in extending their influence to protect their respective geostrategic and economic interests. In one form or another, perhaps with very restricted means, the US will be engaged in an increasingly fragmented and opaque political landscape with complex security arrangements.
The Beacon of Hope: A New Afghan Generation
Despite these negative developments and the deep anxiety with which many Afghans anticipate the 2014 transition, a failure of the international effort to leave Afghanistan with a reasonably stable government, or at least some stable localities, is not preordained. Afghanistan is a complex place, where local realities are often highly diverse. There are glimmers of hope. Security has improved in some parts of the country. Afghan security forces exhibit growing capabilities, even as they continue to be challenged by many deep problems. A new generation of Afghans is rising. Many are educated and capable. They are motivated to take on the problematic power brokers, rise above ethnic cliques, and bring the rule of law to Afghanistan. They need and deserve the support of the US and the international community. Such support needs to be multifaceted, including a robust security component consisting of training and mentorship of Afghan security forces and a push for better governance.
The more restricted its means of operation and the more limited its presence, the more the US will feel itself dependent on problematic powerbrokers for intelligence and the advancement of its interests. Yet in the long run, US interests will be maximized if it can work with the international community to empower those Afghans who are determined to pursue the broader interests of the people over narrow power and profit maximization.
Editor’s Note: For the full article, see Harvard International Review, Issue “Not a Drop to Spare.”