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Can U.S.-Afghan Partnership Work?

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Violence against NATO troops by Afghan security forces in reponse to burning of the Quran at the Bagram Air Base has reignited doubts over the U.S. endgame in Afghanistan, which hinges on handing over security to Afghan forces. The weekend's killing of two U.S. soldiers by an Afghan security official comes just one month after four French soldiers were killed by an Afghan army trainee, an incident that prompted Paris to speed up withdrawal plans. Senior U.S. officials said Washington will stay its course in Afghanistan as planned, but lack of trust on both sides complicates the future of the international mission.

What's at Stake

Washington's current plan calls for pulling out U.S. combat troops by next year and shifting to a security assistance role. U.S. troops will remain in an advisory role in the country until 2014 to help train and build a robust Afghan army and police. But the attacks on U.S. soldiers prompted the international coalition to pull hundreds of advisers from Afghan government ministries, raising questions over the future of U.S.-Afghan partnership.

Besides growing concerns over Afghanistan as a reliable partner, Washington also faces serious hurdles on the diplomatic front as it pushes for negotiations with insurgents, another centerpiece of the U.S. and NATO mission to stabilize Afghanistan.

The Debate

Even as U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker sought to reaffirm the U.S. commitment to work with the Afghans, others raised doubts over the viability of this relationship. Lt. Col. Daniel L. Davis, recently returned from a second year-long deployment in Afghanistan where he represented the Army's Rapid Equipping Force ensuring the troops quickly get the gear they need, said the war was going disastrously, challenging U.S. official assessments.

A lack of effective Afghan governance and planning for transition also has serious implications for peace negotiations with insurgents, says Anthony H. Cordesman of Washington-based think-tank CSIS. "The combination of steadily more real deadlines and U.S. and allied cutbacks, and Afghan government failures, make peace talks a serious risk," he writes.

The latest round of violence reflects more deep-seated Afghan anger over U.S. behavior in this decade-long war. A U.S. Army study in May 2011 (PDF) noted fifty-eight Western personnel had been killed by Afghan national security forces since May 2007, "provoking a crisis of confidence and trust among Westerns training and working with ANSFs." The report found the Afghans had numerous social, cultural, and operational grievances with U.S. soldiers, including arrogance, night raids and home searches, lack of respect for women, and indiscriminate shooting. On the other hand, U.S. soldiers held their Afghan counterparts in contempt and alleged that they colluded with the insurgents, noted the report.

Some are also questioning if this will lead to a faster U.S. pullout (NPR), an issue that has divided analysts in the United States. Some experts like CFR's Stephen Biddle say the existing timetable will make it more difficult for Afghan national forces to become self-sufficient in maintaining security.

Policy Options

The size of the next round of U.S. troop withdrawals is expected to be announced at the NATO Summit in May in Chicago; funding of the Afghan security forces and the number of U.S. personnel that will remain on the ground in advisory capacity beyond 2014 also remains unclear. But any security gains the international forces make with the help of Afghan security forces remain at risk until the international community pushes for further reform of the Afghan political structure, greater transparency and accountability of Afghan government and law enforcement, and investment in economic and social development, say most analysts.

Background Materials

In Foreign Affairs, two former State Department officials, Carter Malkasian and J. Kael Weston, argue the United States should leave some civilian and military advisers behind in Afghanistan post-2014 to help ensure Afghan stability at a relatively low cost in this age of austerity.

This CFR Timeline looks at the U.S. war in Afghanistan since 2001.

This article first appeared on CFR.org.