August has been the deadliest month (CNN) for U.S. troops in the nearly decade-long conflict in Afghanistan, with sixty-six soldiers killed, almost half in the shooting-down of a helicopter. The toll comes as a U.S. and NATO drawdown of thousands of troops gets underway. Meanwhile, the shaky economy is eroding U.S. public support for the war and has focused candidates in the 2012 presidential race on domestic concerns, such as jobs. In a speech August 30 to the American Legion, President Barack Obama said the mission in Afghanistan is transitioning from combat to support, that "it's time to focus on nation-building here at home," and that "too many of our veterans are unemployed."
At issue now is what impact the U.S. drawdown is having on both the Afghan government and Taliban forces. While Washington appears eager to start winding down its Afghanistan involvement, there are concerns that Taliban extremists could still threaten the country's stability and again create a terrorist haven. In a statement August 30, Taliban leader Mullah Omar said he was open to negotiating with NATO (ABC) and that the Taliban had been in direct talks with the United States, with the hopes of a brokered agreement. But Afghan President Hamid Karzai reportedly sought to scuttle those talks (AP). There is evidence, too, that Afghans are concerned about managing without the U.S. security umbrella. Although Karzai has insisted he's eager for Afghan forces to take over security, the United States and Afghanistan are working on an agreement (Telegraph) that could leave U.S. special forces and military trainers in the country until 2024 after combat operations end in 2014. Some reports say that the proposed arrangement is imprecise and unenforceable (AP).
A challenge for U.S. officials is to articulate a narrative for the U.S. mission in Afghanistan. CFR's Daniel Markey says the United States is still struggling to explain how the military achievements in Afghanistan will translate into lasting security. "The United States still needs to find a way to get troops out of Afghanistan and a means to deal with a wide range of enormous security challenges in Pakistan," Markey writes.
There are not many experts arguing that the United States should maintain anything other than a supportive presence in Afghanistan, though CFR's Max Boot says that the Taliban can only be defeated if the United States and NATO have "a critical number of boots on the ground," which they now have "in only two provinces--Helmand and Kandahar." And former vice president Dick Cheney cautioned on Fox News against leaving Afghanistan before it's secure. "You have to remember what happened the last time we pulled out of Afghanistan. In the '80s, we were providing support to the Afghans as they went against the Soviets--after we succeeded, everybody walked away, including the U.S. Within a matter of years, there was a civil war in Afghanistan and the Taliban took over." National security expert Peter Bergen notes that while it makes sense to talk to the Taliban, a deal with its more radical factions is unlikely, and he warns that Mullah Omar is unreliable (CNN).
Experts offer a range of options that include redoubling military efforts against the Taliban, improving the shaky partnership with Pakistan, and putting the relationship with Karzai on firmer ground. David M. Rodriguez, commander of the U.S. Armed Forces Command and former deputy commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, argues that the security challenges ahead (ForeignAffairs) involve consolidating success in southern Afghanistan and expanding eastward. He also says the United States must work with Pakistan to address the challenges of extremist groups, maximize partnerships with "all levels of the Afghan government," and work to ensure adequate representation of all ethnic groups in Afghanistan in the government and security forces.
A recent report by the Center for American Progress says the United States should reset the relationship with Karzai, invest in democratic institutions in Afghanistan, and support a more inclusive peace process. Foreign Affairs editor Gideon Rose suggests that the Obama administration needs a strategy for getting out "without turning a retreat into a rout" (NYT), and proposes a strategy analogous to that used by President Richard Nixon to end the Vietnam War: "masking their withdrawal with deliberate deception and aggressive covering fire."