The War In Afghanistan Could Be Lost This Week

The U.S. has sustained more than 2,200 combat deaths and burned through hundreds of billions of dollars in Afghanistan since 2001, when U.S. forces were first sent to fight al Qaeda and topple the Taliban-led government providing it sanctuary. But after all that bloodshed and treasure lost, the U.S. mission in Afghanistan may soon take ...

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Getty Images
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The U.S. has sustained more than 2,200 combat deaths and burned through hundreds of billions of dollars in Afghanistan since 2001, when U.S. forces were first sent to fight al Qaeda and topple the Taliban-led government providing it sanctuary. But after all that bloodshed and treasure lost, the U.S. mission in Afghanistan may soon take a turn for the worse, strategically - and the results could mean the difference between winning and losing the war.

Just as officials with the U.S.-led military coalition in Kabul say they have trained the Afghan military well enough to stand on its own two feet in combat, President Hamid Karzai and U.S. officials are due to present this week a bilateral security agreement to thousands of Afghan tribal leaders for their approval. They will do so at a loya jirga, an Afghan assembly beginning Thursday that could approve or scuttle the deal.

The U.S. has sustained more than 2,200 combat deaths and burned through hundreds of billions of dollars in Afghanistan since 2001, when U.S. forces were first sent to fight al Qaeda and topple the Taliban-led government providing it sanctuary. But after all that bloodshed and treasure lost, the U.S. mission in Afghanistan may soon take a turn for the worse, strategically – and the results could mean the difference between winning and losing the war.

Just as officials with the U.S.-led military coalition in Kabul say they have trained the Afghan military well enough to stand on its own two feet in combat, President Hamid Karzai and U.S. officials are due to present this week a bilateral security agreement to thousands of Afghan tribal leaders for their approval. They will do so at a loya jirga, an Afghan assembly beginning Thursday that could approve or scuttle the deal.

The agreement, reached Wednesday between Karzai and Secretary of State John Kerry, includes provisions that will allow the U.S. to protect its troops from prosecution by Afghanistan’s justice system. It remains to be seen, however, whether the deal will be approved by the loya jirga. And therein lies the rub: Unless Karzai can corral enough support in his last full year in office to hold the line on his plan with the U.S., the future of Afghanistan remain in doubt. (Well, even more in doubt than it would have been without the deal.)

The loya jirga’s views are not officially binding, but Karzai has said repeatedly that the tribal elders there will decide some of the most controversial pieces of the new security agreement, most notably whether U.S. forces will be granted prosecutorial immunity. Iraq’s unwillingness to do the same resulted in the U.S. pulling all of its troops from that country in 2011, setting the stage for widespread bloodshed there this year.

One U.S. official in Kabul told Foreign Policy that Afghanistan is at a crossroads. Not only is it close to shutting the book on more than a decade of U.S. combat operations, it also must grapple with a history in which previous Afghan heads of state, like former King Zahir Shah, have been accused of being too close to outside forces. That makes it difficult for Karzai, installed by the U.S. as president in 2001, to rally support.

Nevertheless, deadlines loom. The U.S. has withdrawn thousands of forces from Afghanistan, and eyes a long-term presence of about 10,000. That would be less than 10 percent of the force that was on the ground in 2010 and 2011, after President Obama ordered in late 2009 a short-term surge of forces to fight Taliban fighters and create space and time for the Afghan National Security Forces to grow. He did so while announcing that all U.S. combat forces would be removed from the battlefield by the end of 2014, a split-the-difference decision that infuriated some Americans for putting more troops in harm’s way, and others for telegraphing the U.S. strategy.

The 2014 deadline does have some value, however. One U.S. official in Kabul monitoring the politics of the situation said it serves as a "political forcing function," shoving the Afghan and U.S. government toward reaching a long-term deal, even after widespread outrage in Afghanistan over the use of air strikes, night raids and other muscular tactics.

"It is forcing all parties to confront critical issues that are needed in place for the country’s long-term stability and our mutual national security interests," the official in Kabul said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Former Ambassador Ryan Crocker, who oversaw the U.S. diplomatic effort in Kabul in 2011 and 2012, told Foreign Policy that the U.S. isn’t losing the war the war in Afghanistan right now, but must step up to make sure that doesn’t become the case.

"It’s going to require U.S. leadership," he said. "If we’re not engaged, no one is going to be engaged. If we’re not committed, these agreements will be ink on paper. I worry about the lack of sustained administration engagement at a high level about Afghanistan."

Nevertheless, even the U.S. government deciding to sign the bilateral security agreement and continue ponying up money for the war effort does not guarantee success, Crocker said. It also will hinge, he said, on there being free and fair election to replace Karzai in 2014 and the U.S. finding a greater degree of common ground with neighboring Pakistan, which is believed to harbor senior Taliban leaders.

"With all those ‘ifs,’ if they come out right, I think you would see an Afghanistan on a slow, painful and uneven route to a sustainable security in a pluralistic society. I just worry that we’re setting the stage for a repeat from a pretty horrible past," Crocker said, a reference to the civil war in the 1990s that set the stage for the Taliban taking control of Kabul and al Qaeda establishing terrorist training camps in the countryside.

The fight on the ground
U.S. military officials, for their part, defend the advances they have watched Afghan forces make in the last few years. To be fair, there are many. The Afghan National Army now runs independent operations all over the country, and has grown to include more than 200,000 soldiers. They typically focus on rural regions of the country that are more dangerous.

The Afghan police, meanwhile, focus on manning security checkpoints on Afghanistan’s major roads and safeguarding major cities like Kabul and Kandahar. Both are seen now as mostly safe, despite spectacular coordinated attacks occasionally launched by enemy fighters.

Violence also has broadly plummeted in Helmand and Kandahar provinces, which have historically been among the most violent, a senior U.S. military official in Kabul told Foreign Policy. Former Taliban strongholds like Marjah and Garmser in Helmand province have achieved a level of peace that villagers and U.S. forces deployed there alike questioned was every possible.

Other regions of the country have seen an uptick in violence, however, the senior U.S. military official said. The eastern part of the country has seen a "marginal" increase in insurgent attacks, and quiet areas in the northern and western parts of the country have seen more bloodshed, as well. The insurgency’s gains were acknowledged in the Pentagon’s most recent report on Afghanistan to Congress, which said it had "consolidated gains in some of the rural areas in which it has traditionally held power."

One apparent example would be Sangin in Helmand province, which was the site of fierce fighting this summer as a mix of Taliban fighters, drug lords and other elements launched a series of fierce attacks against Afghan forces. In some cases, Afghan soldiers reportedly refused to leave their bases unless it was absolutely necessary, ceding ground to enemy fighters.

Army Brig. Gen. Michael Wehr, who oversees U.S. engineer units in Afghanistan, acknowledged it will be difficult for the Afghan military to maintain control of the whole country, including some areas where the U.S. spent millions of dollars building facilities for Afghan forces. The U.S. counterinsurgency strategy is built on the notion that the military must clear an area of enemy fighters, hold that territory, than build on the efforts. But U.S. and Afghan forces have not always bee
n able to do things in that order, Wehr told Foreign Policy.

"There is, in fact, a large number of facilities that are in the exact right spot and are being maintained today," Wehr said. "But there are some locations that are more of a risk than others. Some of that is that we clear, hold, build, but we’re in fact trying to build where we have not quite cleared, and we’re barely holding."

The fight this summer also was complicated by the staggering number of casualties the Afghan military and police force took, as they ventured out more and more without their own. More than 100 personnel were killed some weeks in combat, and dozens in many others, leading the Pentagon to estimate in its most recent report to Congress that Afghan casualties had spiked 79 percent in a year, while coalition deaths had dropped 59 percent in the same time period.

Like their coalition counterparts, Afghan forces are killed primarily by improvised explosive devices buried in the roads, walls and fields by insurgent fighters. Coalition forces are training the Afghans to handle the attacks better, but they do not have the same mine-resistant vehicles the U.S. uses. Instead, they rely mainly on souped-up Ford Rangers, which provide rugged transportation, but less protection.

But there are signs of progress, Wehr said. Afghan forces actually are better at finding IEDs than coalition troops, relying on tips from villagers and their superior knowledge of the country and its people.

"They are learning the hard way, there is no doubt about that. Discipline, procedures," Wehr told Foreign Policy. "But they actually have a better find and clear rate that we do, and that gets into the intelligence piece, in which they clearly do better than we do in their own culture. They are succeeding in those areas."

Several U.S. officials in Kabul told Foreign Policy that the U.S. won’t "win" in Afghanistan by 2014, and it needs to accept that. Rather, coalition hope to hand the mission over to the Afghan forces at a time when they can maintain at least a stalemate with the Taliban and other extremist groups, creating space for a possible political deal to be reached between the insurgent group and the government later. There is no danger that the Taliban has the ability anymore to mount an attack large enough to take over the government, but they will continue to launch attacks and strong-arm civilians to assert their presence, they said.

"Insurgencies typically end in a political accommodation between the counter-insurgent and the insurgent," one senior military official in Kabul said. "The fighting is a contest of wills to win the populace, and it is designed to create time and space to reach that political accommodation. I think that’s where we are."

Dan Lamothe is an award-winning military journalist and war correspondent. He has written for Marine Corps Times and the Military Times newspaper chain since 2008, traveling the world and writing extensively about the Afghanistan war both from Washington and the war zone. He also has reported from Norway, Spain, Germany, the Republic of Georgia and while underway with the U.S. Navy. Among his scoops, Lamothe reported exclusively in 2010 that the Marine Corps had recommended that Marine Cpl. Dakota Meyer receive the Medal of Honor. This year, he was part of a team of journalists that exposed senior Marine Corps leaders' questionable involvement in legal cases, and then covering it up. A Pentagon investigation is underway in those cases. Twitter: @DanLamothe

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