At a ceremony in Kabul today, Afghan President Hamid Karzai announced that his country’s security forces had taken the lead for security across the country from the US and NATO coalition, marking a significant milestone since the ouster of the Taliban nearly 12 years ago. NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the coalition’s mission was shifting from combat to support: “We will continue to help Afghan troops in operations if needed. But we will no longer plan, execute, or lead those operations. And by the end of 2014, our combat mission will be completed. At that time, Afghanistan will be fully secured by Afghans.”
The surge of troops President Obama ordered in December 2009 helped drive out the Taliban from their strategic safe havens in southern Kandahar and Helmand provinces. But the administration’s premature withdrawal timeline did not allow the commanders on the ground to replicate the success in eastern provinces, where the Haqqani Network maintains entrenched safe havens and continues to pose a serious threat to the government in Kabul.
The surge also helped to develop the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) from 190,000 poorly trained and inadequately equipped personnel into a more effective counterinsurgency force of 350,000 soldiers and policemen. Despite these gains, however, the ANSF remains heavily reliant on the coalition for support roles, primarily air power, logistics, and intelligence. Without continued coalition support in such areas, the ANSF’s operational capabilities will decline considerably.
It is therefore imperative that the transition not be seen as a one-time event, but a gradual process until the ANSF stands on its own and becomes able to prevent al Qaeda and the Taliban from reconstituting in parts of the country.
President Obama must also announce how many troops he intends to leave behind after the majority of coalition troops leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014. An enduring, clear commitment by Washington to post-2014 Afghanistan is necessary to send a strong message to friends and enemies in the region that the US is not abandoning the country any time soon. It will encourage the militants to seek a political settlement rather than to continue violence, and also alleviate the growing anxiety amongst political stakeholders in Afghanistan about stability in the country after 2014. There are already alarming signs that regional power holders are beginning to disobey the central government as coalition troops are leaving. As I argued here, the US needs to keep a significant military presence in Afghanistan beyond 2014 to continue to assist the Afghan forces in the fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban, and also to keep a check on rising terrorism threats emanating from Pakistan.
Furthermore, it is wishful thinking to expect a breakthrough from today’s Taliban announcement about the opening of a political office in Qatar. As I wrote last week, the Taliban is not sincere about talks and is using diplomacy to gain international legitimacy and support and to buy time until the foreign troops’ departure next year.