October 7 marks the tenth anniversary of the beginning of U.S. war in Afghanistan. There is no certain end in sight for U.S. involvement, and concerns are growing over the United States' capacity to bring stability to the country and the region. Triggered by the terrorist attacks on 9/11 in New York and Washington, the war has killed 1,800 U.S. troops and cost $444 billion (PDF). Although the war began with significant public backing, the costs have eroded U.S. public support, amid a global economic downturn, a 9.1 percent unemployment rate, and a $1.3 trillion annual budget deficit.
Meanwhile in Afghanistan, there are more girls in school (BBC), more access to healthcare, a constitution guaranteeing human rights, and improved Afghan security forces -- all significant accomplishments. Also, the Taliban was ousted from power and international terrorist group al-Qaeda has been diminished. Yet a deadly and resilient insurgency persists. The war has created a political economy benefitting insurgents, government officials, and their cronies. The government in Kabul has tenuous control, is deemed highly corrupt, and inspires little trust among the populace.
President Barack Obama has set a 2014 deadline for the end of the U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan, and thirty-three thousand troops are expected to return home by next summer. Although the United States has made security gains in the south -- the traditional stronghold of the insurgents -- the U.S. military views them as "fragile and reversible." The looming 2014 security transition to Afghan forces will be accompanied by cuts in U.S. military and aid spending, which some fear could reduce the Afghan GDP by anywhere from 12 percent to over 40 percent. This "could trigger an economic and military crisis," writes Anthony H. Cordesman of CSIS, in the same year President Hamid Karzai is scheduled to leave office and a new presidential election will be held.
Others raise the specter of a civil war (NPR) once international forces leave. An even bigger worry for some is a destabilized Pakistan with its nuclear arsenal and state-supported terrorist safe havens. The United States had hoped that "if it could stabilize Afghanistan and partner with Pakistan, it could exit the region with improved stability," says CFR's Daniel Markey. Instead, he adds, there is a "negative spiral" with regards to both countries.
U.S. goals in Afghanistan remain uncertain. They have meandered (CNN) from marginalizing the Taliban to state-building, to counterinsurgency, to counterterrorism, to -- most recently -- reconciliation and negotiation with the Taliban. But the peace talks remain nascent and riddled with setbacks. Karzai suspended the talks after the assassination of Burhanuddin Rabbani, the government's chief negotiator, which the Afghan officials blamed on the Pakistan-based Haqqani network. The group denies it.
Most recently, Washington has been accused of following seemingly contradictory policies (NYT) with respect to Afghan insurgent groups based in Pakistan. Some experts question the merits of negotiating with the Taliban and call for a more aggressive U.S. policy "focused on destroying the insurgents' leadership (WashPost), while offering rank-and-file militants opportunities for reintegration." Others, like Century Foundation's Michael Wahid Hanna, remain certain that "accommodating the Taliban within the Afghan state remains the most durable path for security and stability for Afghanistan" (Foreign Policy).
"Regardless of how the war turns out," former Pentagon official Bing West writes in Foreign Affairs, "the conflict has dragged on far too long to be considered a strategic success." Yet the U.S. goal of preventing the reemergence of a safe haven for al-Qaeda inside Afghanistan can be prevented indefinitely, he says, by twenty thousand U.S. soldiers backed by a capable Afghan army.
This will require a broader agreement among Afghans (WashPost) and a regional framework that includes Pakistan, argue some analysts. Many experts also recommend increasing focus on corruption and governance reforms; decentralizing power to give more authority to provincial, district, and local levels; and reaching an intra-Afghan consensus on a political settlement.
Making Withdrawal Work, Foreign Affairs
Roundtable: Ten Years of War, Foreign Policy
Crisis Guide: Pakistan, CFR Interactive
This article first appeared on CFR.org.