The future of the War in Afghanistan became more complex on 1 February when Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced that the U.S. would end its combat role early by summer 2013. This significant development means that the counter-insurgency campaign that NATO is fighting will rely heavily on Afghan National Forces to control Afghan territory. The fate of the mission against the Al-Qaeda/Taliban forces and the stability of Afghanistan is depending on the success of this transition.
The counter-insurgency (COIN) strategy that the U.S. is taking is a twofold process. The first is to ensure the safety of the populace while bolstering the Afghan nation. The second is to crush the insurgent Taliban, eliminating their ability to destabilize the country. The problem with this specific campaign is the time frame given to accomplish the goals. Normally, a COIN operation requires a prolonged presence in the area, ideally lasting decades, to accomplish both goals. The Army field manual on COIN strategy states:
"COIN operations always demand considerable expenditures of time and resources. The populace may prefer the [host nation] government to the insurgents (the Taliban); however, people do not actively support a government unless they are convinced that the counterinsurgents (NATO/Afghan forces) have the means, ability, stamina, and will to win... The populace must have confidence in the staying power of both the counterinsurgents and the [host nation] government."
Thus, it is extremely difficult to demonstrate to the populace the above mentioned attributes in the short-term. However, the U.S. has worked very hard in the last decade to build up the Afghan government, infrastructure, and the natives’ confidence in the Afghan National Army (ANA). Likewise, when General David Petraeus took command of the Afghanistan Theater, an accelerated plan to crush the insurgents was undertaken. The number of kill or capture missions and precision drone strikes increased dramatically, which not only targeted senior level targets as before, but also mid-level commanders, logistics and financial personnel, and even spiritual leaders. The goal here is to achieve victory in a fraction of the time a normal COIN operation would take.
The announcement that our conventional forces will leave in a year is either very hopeful of the ANA’s capacity to hold onto its territory by itself, or it is a gamble taken because of the growing American exhaustion of the war and financial difficulties. Two immediate questions have to be asked: Can the ANA fulfill the role of the U.S. conventional forces effectively, and does the native population feel that the ANA can protect them and their lifestyle? Although the ANA has come a long way, it is probable that there may be a loss of some holdings to the Taliban, and the native peoples won’t immediately have full confidence in the government. This transfer of control doesn’t mean the COIN strategy is being left solely to the Afghans. U.S. Special Forces will stay (and probably increase in number) and adopt an ‘advise and assist’ role:
"The plan would put a particularly heavy focus on Army Special Forces, also known as the Green Berets. They would be in charge of training a variety of Afghan security forces. At the same time, the elite commando teams within Special Operations forces would continue their raids to hunt down, capture or kill insurgent commanders and terrorist leaders and keep pressure on cells of fighters to prevent them from mounting attacks."
Two additional aspects of the situation will be a deciding factor in victory in Afghanistan: peace talks with the Taliban, and the possible reduction of ANA numbers. There has been a lot of talk about possible peace with the Taliban, reconciling mid-level commanders and regular fighters to the government. Recently an office in Qatar has been setup for the purpose of U.S.-Taliban peace talks, but peace looks highly doubtful. Likewise, as our forces continue to kill higher ranking Taliban members, young, less experienced and more radical Taliban are rising in the ranks. These are significantly less likely to make peace with the foreigners. As for the possible reduction in Afghan forces, it is all dependent on Western countries and their ability (or willingness) to give full military aid to Afghanistan in the wake of the global economic crisis. Leon Panetta said, “The funding is going to largely determine the kind of force we can sustain in the future.” Currently there are around 350,000 Afghan security troops and there has been no word on how many of those troops will be sent home.
In the end what this transfer of control means is that there are only a couple of outcomes for the war. The first is that this transfer is too much for the Afghan government. There hasn’t been enough time devoted to this COIN operation, so this is a premature leap forward. The Taliban endure and continue working against Afghan holdings, and as the Council on Foreign Relations Senior Fellow Stephen Biddle says,
“What we will be handing off to the Afghans is a problem that they will not be able to do better than a stalemate with, and they may have some degree of difficulty even in maintaining a stalemate.”
The Taliban will gain momentum, and reestablish a strong presence in parts of Afghanistan.
The second outcome is more optimistic: It turns out enough has been done in the time we’ve spent there and Afghanistan is ready to take the responsibility for the security of their territory. The ANA hold what they have, Afghanistan becomes stronger, and the U.S. Forces either bring the Taliban into peace agreements or reduce them to the point that the Afghans can handle them permanently.