After 12 years of fighting in the mountains on the Pakistan border and the fields of Helmand province, the United States is planning to withdraw from Afghanistan, ending America's longest war.
U.S. forces first entered Afghanistan to find and capture Osama bin Laden on Oct. 7, 2001, just weeks after the 9/11 attacks, and disrupt al Qaeda's most important safe haven. It began as the "good war" with little controversy and a small number of troops with a specific mission. Then the Iraq war diverted American attention, resources and fighting power, dividing the nation as nearly 4,500 American troops were killed and 32,000 wounded. When that war ended in 2010 and President Obama vowed to end the war in Afghanistan, Americans turned their attention elsewhere.
But if there was ever a time to pay attention, it's now.
This final year of the war in Afghanistan will be the most crucial. A bilateral security agreement between Washington and Kabul needs to be reached to allow some U.S. and NATO troops to stay behind, training the Afghan army and police and conducting targeted counterterrorism operations. And a presidential election set for April 5 will decide who replaces the iconic Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan's strongman since 2002. All while bringing about half of the more than 50,000 U.S. troops home by February.
Karzai already has agreed to give American troops legal immunity, which in Iraq was a primary issue that derailed the deal to keep troops there past 2010. But Afghan negotiations have reached a road bump. Karzai not only wants the U.S. to guarantee Afghanistan's security, he wants U.S. forces to hand over their intelligence to Afghan troops so that Afghans can conduct operations against al Qaeda and its operatives. It is one of many difficult choices leaders face before Americans can wipe their hands of the war.
"Our war may be ending, but the war in Afghanistan is only changing," Matt Sherman, a political advisor to ISAF Joint Command, told Defense One, in a telephone interview from Kabul.
Signing a bilateral security agreement is priority number one right now. The sense is that Karzai needs to ink a deal before he leaves office because the new president isn't going to want his first act in office to be an agreement that cedes his nation's sovereignty. Also, the political machine moves slow in Afghanistan -- after a likely runoff election, it would be next fall before a new leader is in place.
"What's going to be so key is the transition of power after the elections, in my mind,' Sherman said. "How will the victors govern and will Afghan security forces remain a force that's able to defend their country? The issue is whether the people, the security forces and the government accept their new leadership. And equally important are the losing candidates -- will they accept defeat and rally their supporters to support a new government?"
"It's just going to be very, very fragile time," he said.
Although the war rarely makes the front page or the evening news anymore, the fighting is not over. Four U.S. soldiers were killed this weekend by an IED in Kandahar. There are certainly fewer U.S. and NATO casualties now that they've stepped back to let the Afghans take the lead, but that doesn't mean the fighting has abated -- it just means that the Afghans are taking the hit now with as many as 100 Afghan soldiers and police killed each week. And there is another fighting season to be fought. Though many U.S. military officials wonder just how much of a lull in fighting there will be this winter, with the election coming up in April.
"There's still a lot of work to be done," Brigadier General Jim Blackburn, commander of the U.S. Army III Corps, told Defense One in a telephone interview from Kabul. But, he said, "insurgencies live and die on perceptions, and perceptions have changed here."
Blackburn said there has been much progress in Afghanistan in recent years. "We've established the conditions for the Afghan forces to be able to repel threats against the government. The Afghan security forces are not going to lose this war."
Still, the threat of the Taliban is real and it remains to be seen how hard they try to take over the government after 2014.
"Personally, I take a longer term view on this -- are segments of the Taliban going to continue to pressure this government? Absolutely. Are they going to continue to attack? Absolutely. The question is will the Afghan security forces be able to stay together? That's the greatest lever in my mind, in terms of long term stability," said one U.S. official in Afghanistan. "There will still be high-profile attacks in urban areas, and there will still be incidents in rural places. The issue is whether it poses a threat to the government in a real way. If the government and security forces remain cohesive and functional, the Taliban and other insurgent groups will then realize that they can't return to power with force. They will then be forced to come to the reconciliation table if they wish to remain relevant and take part in the political process."
And will the international community stay focused on Afghanistan after 2014 and keep its commitments to provide billions of dollars in aid? That's something that's surely on Karzai's mind as he negotiates the conditions for withdrawal.
Although most Americans think the war in Afghanistan is over, this next and final year could be the most decisive of the 12-year conflict. But the fight against terrorism is far from over. As Blackburn puts it: "I'm not sure what 'over' is. I don't think there will be an end to people conspiring against the United States of America."