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Afghanistan’s Future in Doubt as U.S. Ends Combat Role

Staff Sgt. David Flores gives one last safety briefing to his students in 4th Brigade, 201st Afghan National Army Corps, to kick of the final day of their month-long 60mm mortar system training course. (U.S. Army photo)

Thirteen years of war in Afghanistan have left the American public, U.S. service members and the Afghans themselves at odds on what has been achieved and what must be done to prop up the new Kabul government in the years ahead with Americans no longer in a combat role.

The conflicting assessments are playing out against the backdrop of daily attacks that underscore the resiliency of a Taliban insurgency funded largely by the thriving opium trade that the allies failed to stop, according to the office of the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR).

Even those with the longest experience in the region hesitate to predict whether President Obama’s current plan to keep 9,800 U.S. troops in Afghanistan next year, cut that number in half in 2016, and withdraw completely in 2017, will give the Afghans enough time to go it alone.

What it comes down to is whether the U.S. can show the “strategic patience” that has been lacking in Afghanistan as well as in Iraq, said Ryan Crocker, the former ambassador to Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Afghanistan is littered with the skeletons of good ideas,” said Crocker, who worked with Gen. David Petraeus on the counter-insurgency (COIN) strategy that has been shelved by the Obama administration.

“What happens next will have a lot to do with us – not militarily but politically,” Crocker said at Stimson Center forum this week. “Let the people of the country you’re trying to help tell you how they want to be helped.”

One reason for hope was the advances made by Afghan women, Crocker said.

“The idea of shoving Afghan women back into burkas – I wouldn’t want to be the one doing the shoving,” he said.

However, in an audit released Thursday, SIGAR questioned whether the gains for women were lasting and whether the U.S. could claim credit for them. “SIGAR found that there was no comprehensive assessment available to confirm that these gains were the direct result of specific U.S. efforts,” the audit said.

Foreign policy analysts shy away from defining the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO combat troops as a success or a failure.

“What is our collective definition of winning?” said Robert L. Pfaltzgraff, Jr., president of the Institute for Foreign Policy Analysts. “It is obviously not nation building. Is it to weaken and destroy the Taliban? If so we have not succeeded.”

He noted the dismal track record of foreign interventions in Afghanistan going back to Alexander the Great, the British in the 19th Century, and most recently the Soviets in the 1980s.

The long-term U.S. presence does not seem to have weakened the Taliban’s resolve to launch terror attacks throughout the region. On Wednesday, Taliban gunmen stormed a military-run school in Pakistan and killed at least 126 people, most of them schoolchildren.

It could be that leaving Afghanistan is the only way to deny victory to the Taliban and other terrorists groups that simply want to be at war with America, Pfaltzgraff said.

“Maybe they want to drag us in and wear us down,” he said. “Maybe they want to be able fight us and destroy us. And the way to do that is to keep us occupied in these little wars around the world and drain us.”

Attacks continuing and expected

A day after the Pakistani Taliban attacked in Peshawar, the Afghan Taliban used suicide bombers to raid a New Kabul Bank branch in Lashkar Gah, killing 10. The town is capital of southwestern Helmand province where the British maintained their headquarters until last month.

In Kabul, suicide bombings against the military have reached the point where the Afghan Defense Ministry this week told soldiers not to wear their uniforms while traveling to work.

Earlier this week, the Pentagon identified two soldiers killed by an improvised explosive device in Parwan province. Sgt. Ist Class Ramon S. Morris, 37, of New York City, and Spec. Wyatt J. Martin, 22, of Mesa, Arizona, were serving with the 2nd Squadron, 3rd Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division.

They could be the final U.S. casualties of Operation Enduring Freedom that will end on Dec. 31. Since the first U.S. troops entered Afghanistan in late 2001, a total of 2,356 U.S., 453 British and 675 coalition troops have been killed, according to the website icasualties.org.

More than 70 of the deaths came from so-called “insider attacks” – attacks in which Afghan soldiers and police turned their weapons on coalition troops. In response, U.S. troops resorted to “guardian angels,” meaning that at least one of them was to be armed whenever they were in the presence of Afghans.

In August, Maj. Gen. Harold Greene, deputy commander of the Combined Security Transition Command, was killed in an insider attack in Kabul. He was the highest ranking officer killed in the war.

Despite the violence, the Pentagon and Army Gen. John F. Campbell, the U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, have consistently maintained that the attacks were sporadic and were to be expected. They have also maintained that the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) have consistently shown the mettle to deal with the Taliban.

“Yes, there's been some sporadic violence inside Kabul,” Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, said at a briefing earlier this week. “I'm not minimizing that, but that's also somewhat expected as the mission gets ready to come to an end there, that the Taliban would try to do this to divert attention from the fact that real progress has been made.”

Afghan military casualty rate ‘not sustainable’

The progress Kirby spoke of came at a heavy cost to the ANSF. Last month, Army Lt. Gen. Joseph Anderson, the commander of the International Security Assistance Force Joint Command, told Pentagon reporters that ANSF had suffered nearly 9,000 fatalities since the beginning of 2013.

The casualty rate was “not sustainable,” Anderson said. He also told the New York Times earlier this month that he was leaving Afghanistan in doubt on the nation’s future.

“I don’t know if I’m pessimistic or optimistic,” Anderson said. “The fact that we are in less places, the fact that there are less of us as a coalition, is obviously concerning.”

Anderson’s doubts have been echoed in several polls going back to 2009 showing that a majority of Americans believe that the Afghan war was not worth fighting.

U.S. troops were also pessimistic on Afghanistan. A Military Times survey of troops earlier this week showed that more than 63 percent felt that U.S. efforts in Afghanistan were “not likely to succeed.”

Afghan officials also question whether they will be able to cope when Operation Enduring Freedom transitions to Operation Resolute Support on Jan, 1.

Rahmatullah Nabil, the Afghan intelligence chief, told the Afghan parliament earlier this week that the recent surge of suicide bombings and attacks across the country could be attributed to the withdrawal of the allies with their high-tech gear.

Despite the warning signs, President Obama remained upbeat on the on the prospects for Afghanistan achieving stability without U.S. and NATO troops in a combat role.

Obama told troops at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey, earlier this week that at year’s end, “the transition that we’re making in Afghanistan will be complete. Afghans will take full responsibility for their security. This month, after more than 13 years, our combat mission in Afghanistan will be over.”

“Now, that doesn't mean everything is great in Afghanistan,” Obama said. “Afghanistan is still a very dangerous place. But I want you, and every American who has served in Afghanistan, to be proud of what you’ve accomplished there.”

-- Richard Sisk and Matthew Cox can be reached at Richard.Sisk@military.com and Matthew.Cox@military.com.

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