US “combat operations” in Afghanistan are officially scheduled to wind down in 2014. And media attention is now turning toward speculating (i.e. relaying contending institutional preferences between the White House and the Pentagon) on the level of US troop presence in Afghanistan after 2014. Current estimates, in case you still care, are that US troop levels will be roughly around 10,000 assisted by a couple thousand NATO troops — assuming, of course, that President Karzai agrees to prolong the suspension of his country’s full sovereignty. For next year, however, it is likely that at least 60,000 US troops will remain through the fighting season.
The notion that “combat operations” will be wrapped up by 2014 while US forces shift toward an advisory “support role” reflects a typically deceptive use of an innocuous sounding phrase like “support role” that the public has come to accept uncritically from our military leaders and policymakers. Regardless of what US troops actually do in their “support” capacity, it is clear that the narrative arc — despite the salacious demise of one of the story’s chief architects and protagonists — is still oriented toward reassuring Americans that the decade long war is nearly over and that Afghanistan has been miraculously stabilized. This noble lie may be necessary for extricating the bulk of US/NATO/ISAF forces from this war, but it is also dangerous given the way that myths about the successful use of force create their own reality over time.
The organizations that fight under the banner of the Taliban have not been defeated. In case you completely tuned out of this war, it is worth repeating: The surge in Afghanistan did not work. (To be precise: neither the 1st “quiet surge” of 2008 under Bush nor the 2nd “really, really well hyped surge” of 2009-12 under Obama worked in Afghanistan.) In fact, insurgents still manage to pull off about 100 attacks per day in a country which is just slightly smaller than the state of Texas and is stocked with 66,000 US soldiers, 37,000 NATO/ISAF forces, 200,000 Afghan National Army troops, 149,000 Afghan National Police, etc.
Meanwhile, the old warlords, who were never successfully co-opted and marginalized by the government of Afghanistan, are threatening to rearm. Opium cultivation is up… way up. And on the international assistance front, the EU has suspended aid to Afghanistan due to corruption. I could go on, but you get the picture…
There are no corners left to turn in Afghanistan, and the Taliban is certainly not gasping its last breath; the US and NATO have failed to stabilize the country – which would have required a Pak-Af strategy instead of an Af-Pak strategy to begin with. The US public may be eager to declare victory and move on … a mass strategy of self-deception that makes perfect sense given the lack of American and European interests in the country … but no amount of spin should be allowed to make the war in Afghanistan seem like a success in academic, policy making, or strategic enclaves.