They would never use these precise words, but American officials are deeply concerned about making the same mistakes in Afghanistan that were made in Iraq. As the longest war in American history comes to a close on an arbitrary and political timetable, some military planners are preparing for the worst.
In early December, outgoing Defense Sec. Chuck Hagel revealed that the United States would delay the withdrawal of another 1,000 American soldiers from Afghanistan in 2015. The total residual American force that will be left behind after complete U.S. withdrawal will now number 10,800. For now, however, the Pentagon still intends to cut that troop presence in half by 2016 and reduce all American military personnel in country to embassy staff by the time President Barak Obama leaves office.
But the war against the Taliban is not over. While Western governments busy themselves with the work of withdrawal, the Afghanis are preparing for a brutal peace. Already, the year in which the U.S. chose to withdraw has been the bloodiest for average Afghans.
“Nationwide, Afghanistan has lost more than 5,000 police and soldiers in the fighting this year, more than any previous year, according to official Afghan data that has not been formally released, but that was obtained by The New York Times and confirmed by Western officials familiar with the data,” read a stunning report in The Times. “The year has also hit a new high for civilian deaths in the fighting, which the United Nations estimates will exceed 10,000 by the end of 2014.”
According to that report, the Taliban is already making headway into areas of Afghanistan that were firmly under coalition control in the recent past. In the Sangin area of Helmand Province, the fighting has been among the fiercest since U.S. forces surrendered control of that territory to the Afghan government.
Wounded police officers at Emergency expressed concern at the increased scale of the fighting. “Only the asphalt road is under the control of the government in Sangin. Everything else is Taliban,” said Samiullah, a policeman in Sangin for the past four years who goes by just one name. He was shot in the leg during an ambush in a village near the district center.
Like many of the wounded, he complained about both the Afghan National Army and his own commanders. “Our own commanders sell our bullets to the Taliban instead of giving them to us, and then they buy a nice house in Lashkar Gah and stay there, leaving the little guys out there to do the fighting,” Samiullah said.
Now that the Americans are gone, the army rarely conducts joint operations with the police, leaving them to do most of the fighting, said Mohammad Saleh, a five-year veteran of the Afghan Local Police in Sangin, who was badly wounded in both legs when his checkpoint was overrun by the insurgents.
The horrific Taliban attack on school children in Pakistan last week underscores the scale of the regional security challenge that will persist long after coalition combat forces have withdrawn. Some foresee the introduction of regional forces like the Pakistani army into Afghanistan which will continue to work toward the stabilization of that nation. But according to a fascinating editorial in India-based paper The Hindu, withdrawal is as likely to have as destabilizing effect on Pakistan as it is on Afghanistan.
Why do we think that Pakistan will fare any better in Afghanistan than far more powerful empires before them? On the contrary if they are unwise enough to meddle in the country, not only will they squander much blood and treasure but they will certainly import even more terrorism and strife into their own cities and towns.
Moreover as the U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan ends, the U.S. need for Pakistani cooperation for transit and logistic support will fall quickly. Joining the American War on Terror in 2001/2002 brought Pakistan huge U.S. military and economic aid as well as quasi-immunity for the military/ISI’s use of ‘non-conventional assets’.
But after U.S. withdrawal — as happened earlier in the 1990s — U.S. interest in and aid to Pakistan will rapidly decline. So will U.S. tolerance for Pakistan’s use of terrorism as a proxy weapon. The recent U.S. Pentagon report on Pakistani support for terrorism is a straw in the wind.
An isolated and surrounded Pakistan, beset by Islamists both domestically and over the border, will be a dangerous Pakistan.
As is the case in Iraq, America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan may only be a temporary condition if it is not done right. And U.S. return would likely come amid decidedly worse circumstances than it presently faces.