It is safe to say that the Obama administration will not expedite or significantly reduce the U.S. footprint in Afghanistan before 2014. Washington has pinned its exit on building up the Afghan national security forces, an effort that only really began in 2009. But Afghans might not be ready by 2014, or many years after. The Obama administration must confront this reality. Sadly, this region has been in constant conflict for over a generation and will remain so whether or not we stay.
Despite quantifiable personnel gains, the Afghan National Police has developed a reputation for desertion and rapaciousness. Meanwhile, on top of logistical challenges, the performance and effectiveness of the Afghan National Army remains questionable. Furthermore, competing sub-national loyalties may preclude Afghan security forces from pledging allegiance to a tightly centralized government in Kabul, an entity that remains corrupt and grossly ineffective.
These problems persisted well before the recent spate of events became crippling P.R. disasters. Last summer, the Wall Street Journal reported on a classified military study that found the killings of American soldiers by Afghan troops were turning into a “growing systemic threat” that could undermine the entire war effort. It concluded that top commanders were ignoring a “crisis of trust” between Afghan forces and American soldiers.
Forgotten amid recent events is the issue of Pakistan, a major challenge that cannot be addressed by the fledgling Afghan security forces. By way of proxies, elements of Pakistan’s security establishment have extended their geopolitical reach into Afghanistan as a hedge against India. Washington has never been able to seriously address this issue. Pakistan’s reluctance to go after select militant groups, including some it has nurtured for more than 30 years, represents an enduring structural challenge to Afghanistan’s internal security situation.
We are told that establishing internal security will take two more years, but Americans have already sacrificed too much in blood and treasure. The current U.S. mission could press on well beyond 2014 and never achieve its goal.