The United States military will still be in Afghanistan at the end of this year. It will still be in Afghanistan at the end of 2013. And it will still be in Afghanistan beyond 2014, the date when NATO forces are scheduled to hand over responsibility for fighting the war in Afghanistan to the Afghans themselves. The Obama administration has been quite firm about its timeline for the campaign in Afghanistan since the president presented his strategy for the war to the United States Military Academy on Dec. 1, 2009.
There is ample reason, though, to expect a small task force to stay behind in Afghanistan for years to come. Although the Obama administration has been reluctant to speak publicly about leaving some troops in Afghanistan beyond 2014, the size and composition of such a force has been a topic of discussion between the United States and Afghan governments.
International forces provide a degree of stability to Afghanistan, analysts argue, and their absence would hasten a civil war that would not be in the interests of either the United States or Afghanistan’s neighbors. Although the war in Afghanistan has been going poorly since at least 2006, the past two years have been useful in that they have created time and space to build up Afghan security forces. Now, the United States and other Western nations can begin transitioning in Afghanistan. But the fighting will not end once troops leave, and the United States and others will continue to arm, train and equip Afghan forces in the same way elements of the Pakistani state continue to arm, train and equip some of Afghanistan’s insurgent groups.
The U.S. military can continue to carry out the president’s policy -- which is to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaeda -- with smaller numbers of troops in Afghanistan. Special operations forces can continue to degrade the leadership of Afghanistan’s insurgent groups on the one hand while providing training and assistance to Afghan government forces on the other hand. The war, then, is not so much ending as transitioning to a period in which U.S. forces hope to fight by, with and through their Afghan allies -- rather than against the Taliban on their own.
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