WASHINGTON -- Starting Sunday, tens of thousands of troops from the 10th Mountain, 101st Airborne and the 1st Armored Divisions will begin boarding aircraft bound for yet another combat tour in Afghanistan. At least some of the troopers will have been in grade school when the war started in 2001, and some will be on their second or third rotation.
But now, after a U.S. investment of $641 billion sunk into the war and a casualty toll of 2,162 dead and 18,188 wounded, the Pentagon reports that the Taliban insurgency that was supposed to have been beaten is still active and resilient, that the Afghan government is still corrupt and that Afghan security forces are still unable to fight the war on their own.
Instead, deadly IED attacks have increased 56 percent from three years ago to nearly 14,500 in 2012, and insurgents have found that "insider attacks" of Afghans against Americans have become an effective and demoralizing weapon. Last year saw more than 60 attacks against U.S. and coalition troops and civilians in Afghanistan. And U.S. officials acknowledge there is no clear prospect for a negotiated settlement of the war.
The Obama administration is working this week with visiting Afghan President Hamid Karzai to determine how many of the 68,000 U.S. troops currently in Afghanistan will be needed through the end of 2014, when the Afghan army and police are supposed to assume responsibility for fighting the war. Administration officials say U.S. military personnel will almost certainly be needed after 2014 to advise and support the Afghans.
But given the grim picture presented in the Pentagon's latest assessment of the war, released last month, The Huffington Post asked Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Thursday how the administration could justify continued U.S. involvement in the war.
"We have poured a lot of blood and treasure into this war," Panetta responded at a Pentagon press conference Thursday. "We have made a lot of progress as a result of sacrifice by our people, and we're not gonna walk backward."
Asked whether he saw any prospects for a negotiated settlement, Panetta indicated that further training of Afghan troops and more fighting would have to come first. "The stronger position we are in, the better the chances over time of political reconciliation," he said.
Panetta met with Karzai one-on-one at the Pentagon earlier Thursday. On Friday Karzai is scheduled to meet with President Obama, likely to review the recommendations on strategy and troop levels that the Afghan war commander, Gen. John Allen, forwarded to the Pentagon last month. Those recommendations are being reviewed by White House staff but have not yet been forwarded to Obama, Pentagon officials said.
But whatever force levels are chosen, the American troops who will rotate in and out of Afghanistan on nine-month tours will face a Taliban insurgency the Pentagon says is "adaptive and determined, and retains the capability to emplace substantial numbers of IEDs and to conduct isolated high-profile attacks."
Despite hard fighting by U.S., allied and Afghan forces and the sacrifices to which Panetta referred, "the insurgency has nevertheless retained its capability to carry out attacks at almost the same level as last year," the Pentagon acknowledged.
The Pentagon said the insurgents are able to recruit fighters to replace battlefield losses and will continue to fight with "high profile attacks, assassinations of officials, insider attacks and IEDs."
The development and fielding of a competent Afghan security force, which is supposed to take over in 2015, has been disappointing, according to the Pentagon report, which acknowledged that the timetable "is slower than initially expected." The U.S. has invested $11.2 billion in recruiting and training Afghan security forces.
But in essence, the Afghan army and police cannot support themselves on operations, requiring assistance in logistics, medical support, airlift and intelligence gathering, among other critical functions.
It is those functions which American military personnel, or contractors, are expected to fill beginning in 2015, when the U.S. and NATO have pledged to end a direct "combat role."
In addition, the Afghan military units will likely require U.S. combat advisers for the foreseeable future, U.S. commanders have said.
One reason is raw numbers: The Afghan army, for instance, is slowly building toward its goal of 192,000. But over the past year, while it recruited 68,422 soldiers, 48,466 either quit or quietly disappeared. Training is hampered by widespread illiteracy, despite mandatory crash courses in reading. By the Pentagon's detailed account, of the Afghan army's 23 combat brigades, only one is rated as capable of operating independently -- with advisers.
The Afghan air force also has had difficulty with recruiting well-educated airmen. As a result, the air force exists only on paper, the report said, and is rife with corruption and "infiltration by criminal networks." The interior ministry, which fields the Afghan police forces, is also corrupt and "significantly susceptible" to infiltration by criminal gangs.
Panetta and other U.S. officials insist the "transition" to a full takeover of Afghan security by its own forces is "on track." But others aren't so sure.
"Afghanistan is hurtling toward a devastating political crisis," the International Crisis Group reported this fall, concluding, "Plagued by factionalism and corruption, Afghanistan is far from ready to assume responsibility for security when U.S. and NATO forces withdraw in 2014."
In an equally glum assessment, Anthony Cordesman, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, writes that "there has been no meaningful military progress since the end of 2010." With Afghan presidential elections scheduled for April, 2014, Cordesman said he worries that there are "no public U.S. plans that show how the Obama administration will deal with either the civil or military aspects of this transition between now and the end of 2014, or in the years that follow."
Tayeb Jawad, the former Afghan ambassador to Washington, said this week that the lack of a solid political-military plan to guide the U.S. and Afghanistan through the next difficult two years is troubling.
"We don't get a clear message from our international partners or our political leadership on what are we transitioning to," Jawad said at a forum sponsored by the Atlantic Council in Washington. "How are we going to fit into this new world emerging around us, with instability in Pakistan, hostility in Iran?
"What people in Afghanistan are worried about is not so much insecurity, but what is going to happen to our country? What is going to happen to us?"