(MintPress) – With more than 2,100 U.S. troop deaths since the war began in 2001, the war-weary American public will likely welcome a full troop withdrawal from Afghanistan next year. However, the longest war in U.S. history could be extended until 2024, with the possibility of a few thousand troops remaining in the country to assist in security training for Afghan forces.
A once concrete timetable became muddled this week after reports from White House officials indicate that the Obama administration may be considering a full-troop pullout by the end of next year. The possibility of “zero troops,” although considered publicly by spokespeople, seems unlikely given the precarious state of Afghanistan, teetering on the edge of civil war. With a weak economy, a thriving illicit drug trade and major internal security concerns, the “endgame in Afghanistan” could be pushed back as long as 11 years.
Afghanistan: An occupation with no end
“We wouldn’t rule out any option, including zero troops,” Ben Rhodes, a White House deputy national security adviser, said in a statement Tuesday. The news complicates previous reports indicating that the Obama administration was committed to only a partial troop pullout in 2014, leaving behind several thousand troops until 2024 for security.
The ambiguous position may be in response to increasing domestic hostility to the war. Public opposition has increased significantly in recent months. According to a New York Times/CBS public opinion poll released last year, 69 percent think that the United States “should not be at war in Afghanistan.”
The White House announcement comes at the same time as Afghan officials warn of a possible civil war if the Americans pull-out haphazardly. “If Americans pull out all of their troops without a plan, the civil war of the 1990s would repeat itself,” said Naeem Lalai, a lawmaker from volatile Kandahar province on Wednesday.
The original deal to keep small numbers of American troops in Afghanistan until 2024 was signed in April, just ahead of the NATO conference in Chicago.
Troops have decreased steadily in the past few years. In 2010 the U.S. had 100,000 troops stationed in Afghanistan. At the start of 2013, just 66,000 remain. The slow but noticeable winding down of a seemingly endless war is commensurate with reported gains against militants.
Fewer than 100 al-Qaida fighters are thought to remain in Afghanistan although unknown numbers of other terrorists, including members of the al-Haqqani network and the Taliban, remain in the semi-lawless tribal areas bordering Pakistan.
Mullah Omar, the spiritual leader of the Taliban who remains at large, is thought to be still directing Taliban operations against NATO and allied Afghan forces. In February 2012, Omar reportedly sent a letter to Barack Obama, expressing interest in peace talks.
However, no dialogue has been opened with the mysterious leader since the inquiry. His presence, and the presence of Taliban forces in the mountainous tribal areas, will remain a challenge for any Afghan government after the U.S. withdrawal.
Security and development challenges
Security is the highest concern for the transitional government, threatened by internal strife and an unexpected spike in insider attacks by allied Afghan security forces. The “green on blue” attacks claimed the lives of 50 NATO soldiers in 2012, with the latest attack Monday reportedly killing one British soldier.
“Afghanistan needs every country involved in its rebuilding effort to send a clear message to today’s Afghan leadership demanding a democratic transition of power based on the principles of free and fair elections,” writes Abdullah Abdullah in a recent Op-Ed.
“Instead of abandoning democracy because it hasn’t worked under a kleptocracy, Afghanistan and the international community must clean it up,” adds Abdullah, an Afghan politician.
While the mere presence of free, transparent elections does not signal the full transition to democracy, elections with high levels of voter turnout will show increased citizen confidence in their government. The central government in Kabul remains a weak, corrupt entity subservient to U.S. interests. One of the fundamental challenges going forward will be to change this unfortunate reality.
Along with North Korea and Somalia, Afghanistan is ranked as one of the three most corrupt countries in the world. This according to Transparency International, a leading organization ranking levels of government corruption as perceived by citizens.
This point is underscored by WikiLeaks documents released in 2010, showing that the Karzai family is heavily involved in the illicit drug trade. Additionally, leaked reports show that diplomats with experience working with the Afghan president describe him as “erratic, emotional and prone to believing paranoid conspiracy theories.”
Various WikiLeaks documents further show that Karzai is largely complicit in drug deals across his embattled country, having struck deals with drug lords and thugs. After his many interactions with the Afghan president, Karl Eikenberry, former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, described Karzai in the most uncomplimentary of terms, saying,
“Indeed his inability to grasp the most rudimentary principles of state-building and his deep seated insecurity as a leader combine to make any admission of fault unlikely, in turn confounding our best efforts to find in Karzai a responsible partner.”
The biggest challenge for Afghans is not just ridding their country of the brutal U.S. occupation, but also eliminating the vestiges of the corrupt regime representing only the interests of drug traffickers, the U.S. and the monied elite of Afghanistan.
India as an important player
Afghanistan, of course, cannot rebuild its state alone. After the expected U.S. pullout from Afghanistan next year, it will be the duty of Afghanistan to find credible partners to help rebuild the war-torn country that has endured decades of Soviet and American occupation.
A historic conference held in Tokyo July of last year netted Afghanistan $16 billion in aid pledges from dozens of countries. The U.S., Japan, Germany and the U.K. led the way, committing billions of dollars to help with the rebuilding effort. Countries in attendance agreed to reconvene for a follow up conference to be held in the U.K. next year.
However, with a virtually non-existent economy, building reliable industries and accountable institutions will be necessary to ensure that the future Afghan state doesn’t become entirely dependent upon international aid. According to the World Bank, 95 percent of the Afghanistan’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) currently comes from international aid.
India could fill the void when the troops pull out and the aid dollars slow. A recent report issued by the Strategic Studies Institute (SSI) of the U.S. Army War College suggests that India is emerging as a possible player in the post-NATO withdrawal. The move is logical from a security standpoint given New Delhi’s fear of an Islamist insurgency coming from radical madrassas in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
“Now that Washington is making it clear that it views Pakistan as part of the problem and India as part of the solution, New Delhi and Washington have a historic opportunity to work together in bringing stability and security in Afghanistan,” the report concludes.
With the uncertain, but very real possibility of a U.S. invasion into Iran, continued NATO troop presence in the Middle East and Central Asia signals the possibility that Washington maintains a vested interest in keeping a watchful eye on Iran while attempting to secure the straits of Hormuz, a narrow body of water through which approximately one third of the world’s oil passes.