The narrative that the Obama administration has laid out for winding down the war in Afghanistan has a familiar feel: It is intended to evoke the gradual withdrawal from Iraq.
But the administration faces a fundamentally different challenge in Afghanistan and a host of problems that it did not have in the latter days of the Iraq war.
In Afghanistan, heavy fighting is likely to persist well into 2014, particularly in the provinces along Pakistan’s border, senior military officials said. In contrast with Iraq, the Afghan government and security forces will require billions of dollars annually in U.S. support for the foreseeable future. It seems unlikely that the insurgents’ haven in Pakistan will shrink.
“In Afghanistan, you will be fighting a much tougher war over the next few years compared with Iraq post-2008,” said retired Lt. Gen. David Barno, who previously served as the top U.S. commander in Kabul.
Obama administration officials made the comparison to Iraq on Thursday as they scrambled to clarify Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta’s remarks that the United States hoped to end its combat mission in Afghanistan by the middle of next year, more than a year earlier than scheduled, and shift to advising Afghan forces.
“Iraq is a helpful reference point in this,” said White House spokesman Jay Carney. Just as in Iraq, he said, American advisers would remain in the country and would “continue to participate in combat missions.”
But by mid-2010, when the Obama administration declared an end to the U.S. combat mission in Iraq, American forces had already pulled out of the country’s major cities, where the war’s fiercest and bloodiest battles took place. The 49,000 U.S. advisory troops that remained took casualties, but the vast majority of the fighting was carried out by Iraqi forces.
In Afghanistan, Taliban forces still control swaths of territory in the mountainous eastern regions along the border, where they continue to kill Afghan government forces and intimidate villagers.
“Are we ready to take over? In some places, we are,” said one Afghan commander, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “But in others, we aren’t now, and we won’t be in a year.”
The Afghan commander’s concerns were echoed by senior U.S. military officials in Kabul who insisted that Panetta’s remarks did not signal a change in U.S. policy or even a planned diminution in combat operations for U.S. forces.
In many ways, the dust-up caused by Panetta’s remarks reflects a political divide within the Obama administration over how quickly the United States can and should turn over responsibility for security to an Afghan government that remains weak.
Senior military officials cautioned that the U.S. forces would still be in the lead in battles abutting havens in Pakistan, where commanders believe insurgents still receive assistance from that country’s intelligence service.
“We’re still going to be fighting,” said a senior military official in Kabul. “As time passes, we’ll become more distant to the [Afghan forces] as they become more self-sufficient and capable across 2014-2015.” The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because he did not want to appear as though he was contradicting his civilian leadership.
In Afghanistan, U.S. and Afghan officials have sought to build confidence among Afghan soldiers and civilians in the ability of the country’s institutions to maintain security. For the past six months, Afghan and U.S. officials have held formal ceremonies to celebrate the transition of cities, districts and provinces to Afghan control — early steps toward a post-NATO Afghanistan.
Billboards have been posted across the country with photos of U.S. soldiers handing their guns over to their Afghan counterparts. Afghan units have begun crafting their own missions and going on independent patrols.
Such measures, although sometimes dismissed as hollow symbols by officials in Kabul, have prompted Afghan officers to play a more active role in traditionally NATO-led military operations, Western military officials say.
Though more than a dozen formal transition ceremonies have been held since last summer, most have been in relatively peaceful provinces or in small patches of cities, sometimes only a few square miles.
Those handovers are a far stretch from the challenges to come. American officials planned to use early transition exercises as a litmus test for the broader shift to Afghan control.
Afghan commanders questioned whether the looming security handover is a testament to their own progress or a product of U.S. politics and war weariness. “For those who understand the reality, Panetta’s announcement sends a vague message. Many will argue, how can we trust the U.S. when they keep changing their words?” said Afghan Maj. Kosh Sadat.
Even among senior U.S. military commanders there has been a spirited debate over how quickly to press Afghan forces to take on more responsibility. This spring, American commanders will begin pairing up some of their small advisory teams with the more capable Afghan forces, U.S. officials said. The full complement of American advisory teams should be in place by early 2013.
Some U.S. military officials have pressed for giving Afghan units more responsibility sooner to test their ability to stand on their own as U.S. forces withdraw. “The time to figure out how good the Afghan forces are isn’t in 2014,” said Andrew Exum, a senior fellow with the Center for a New American Security. “It is now.”
In Kabul, military officials worry about losing ground gained from the insurgency during tough battles over the past two years.
“In 2013, we are moving to the decisive portion of the campaign where the Afghan forces will be in the lead but heavily advised, assisted and enabled” by NATO forces, one senior military official said.
The Karzai administration appeared unfazed by Panetta’s statement, with officials claiming that they are still confident the United States will remain a stabilizing force in Afghanistan.
“The international troops are focusing more on the strengthening, equipment and funding of Afghan forces, and this will make the Afghan forces self-sufficient and ready to take on this big responsibility,” said Hakim Asher, a government spokesman. He called the statement a “natural part of the process of transition.”
But to many in Washington, Panetta’s remarks were interpreted as the latest sign of the administration’s eagerness to bring the U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan to an end.
“We have interests in Afghanistan, but they are limited, so people are groping around for a limited way of dealing with it,” said Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “My worry is that we run the risk of backing into a situation where the investment we are making will not produce an adequate return.”