Don't expect to hear about it in the presidential campaign debates, but the U.S. knows it will leave Afghanistan locked in an escalating civil war when it observes the 2014 deadline for withdrawing combat troops set by the Obama Administration — and supported by Gov. Mitt Romney. The New York Times reported Tuesday that the U.S. military has had to accept failure in its 'surge' strategy of adding 30,000 combat troops in hopes of inflicting enough pain on the Taliban to set favorable terms for a political settlement. The last of the surge troops left last month, with the Taliban fighting on and in no mood to compromise. Instead, it will be left up to the Afghan combatants to find their own political solution once the U.S. and its allies take themselves out of the fight.
Washington has known for years that it had no hope of destroying the indigenous Taliban insurgency, and would have to settle for a compromise political solution. But it had hoped to do enough damage to the Taliban to set the terms of such a compromise, forcing the insurgents to accept a Karzai government it has long dismissed as a "puppet regime". But the surge failed to achieve that, leaving the Taliban less inclined than ever to accept U.S. terms as the 2014 departure date for U.S. forces looms.
Now, the U.S. simply hopes that the Afghan security forces it has trained and armed are strong enough to withstand the Taliban, and force it to come to terms. Even that may be overly optimistic. The Afghan security forces, or at least its ethnic Tajik core, may well find the political will to fight the Pashtun-dominated Taliban, and the means to prevent themselves being overrun but they'll likely control considerably less Afghan territory than NATO forces currently do.
And if a raging Taliban insurgency is no longer considered an obstacle to the departure of NATO combat units, the rationale for staying even through 2014 becomes murky. The alliance plans to leave a residual force of trainers and special forces in place beyond 2014. But with NATO demoralized by the ongoing "insider" attacks, which this year alone have seen more than 50 alliance troops killed by the very Afghan forces they're mentoring.
Pessimists fear that neither the Afghan political system nor its security forces will survive the U.S. departure. Karzai's regime remains riddled with corruption, and he plans to run his brother Abdul Qayum for president in 2014 when his own second term expires. Nobody's expecting a clean election. With NATO planning to withdraw, Karzai will be even more inclined to empower warlords whose backing he needs in a fight and less inclined to heed Western complaints.
British Conservative MP Rory Stewart, who spent time on the ground in both Iraq and Afghanistan, recently sketched a grim scenario: "If the U.S., Britain and their allies leave Afghanistan, there will be chaos and perhaps civil war," Stewart wrote. "The economy will falter and the Afghan government will probably be unable to command the loyalty or support of its people. The Taliban could significantly strengthen their position in the south and east, and attack other areas. Powerful men, gorged on foreign money, extravagantly armed and connected to the deepest veins of corruption and gangsterism, will flex their muscles. For all these reasons departure will feel – rightly – like a betrayal of Afghans and of the soldiers who have died."
But a decade of war has proved that Western armies are no more capable than their Soviet counterparts had been in the 1980s of eliminating an indigenous insurgency in Afghanistan. And even their fallback options of boosting the Afghan security forces and pressing for a political solution with the Taliban are looking doubtful.
In short, the U.S. and its allies are going to leave a mess in Afghanistan whose consequences it will hope to mitigate through financial aid and probably air support to prevent the Taliban using heavy weaponry to overwhelm its rivals.
The rest will be up to the Afghans to sort out among themselves — a conversation that will be conducted with weapons until the limits of each side's capacity to impose its will are apparent to their commanders and regional backers, and that new battlefield equilibrium sets the terms for new political arrangements. Chances are, it's not going to look much like the Afghanistan the U.S. had hoped to leave behind.