Why This Is the Most Important Year of the War in Afghanistan

The country must still survive the end of the withdrawal, April elections, and a violent Taliban. 
The tracks of a U.S. Army vehicle seen during a mission near Command Outpost Pa'in Kalay in Maiwand District, Kandahar Province. (Andrew Burton/Reuters)

After 12 years of fighting in the mountains on the Pakistan border and the fields of Helmand province, the United States is planning to withdraw from Afghanistan, ending America’s longest war.

U.S. forces first entered Afghanistan to find and capture Osama bin Laden on Oct. 7, 2001, just weeks after the 9/11 attacks, and disrupt al Qaeda’s most important safe haven. It began as the “good war” with little controversy and a small number of troops with a specific mission. Then the Iraq war diverted American attention, resources and fighting power, dividing the nation as nearly 4,500 American troops were killed and 32,000 wounded. When that war ended in 2010 and President Obama vowed to end the war in Afghanistan, Americans turned their attention elsewhere.

But if there was ever a time to pay attention, it’s now.

This final year of the war in Afghanistan will be the most crucial. A bilateral security agreement between Washington and Kabul needs to be reached to allow some U.S. and NATO troops to stay behind, training the Afghan army and police and conducting targeted counterterrorism operations. And a presidential election set for April 5 will decide who replaces the iconic Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan’s strongman since 2002. All while bringing about half of the more than 50,000 U.S. troops home by February.

Karzai already has agreed to give American troops legal immunity, which in Iraq was a primary issue that derailed the deal to keep troops there past 2010. But Afghan negotiations have reached a road bump. Karzai not only wants the U.S. to guarantee Afghanistan’s security, he wants U.S. forces to hand over their intelligence to Afghan troops so that Afghans can conduct operations against al Qaeda and its operatives. It is one of many difficult choices leaders face before Americans can wipe their hands of the war.

“Our war may be ending, but the war in Afghanistan is only changing,” Matt Sherman, a political advisor to ISAF Joint Command, told Defense One, in a telephone interview from Kabul.

Signing a bilateral security agreement is priority number one right now. The sense is that Karzai needs to ink a deal before he leaves office because the new president isn’t going to want his first act in office to be an agreement that cedes his nation’s sovereignty. Also, the political machine moves slow in Afghanistan -- after a likely runoff election, it would be next fall before a new leader is in place.

“What’s going to be so key is the transition of power after the elections, in my mind,’ Sherman said. “How will the victors govern and will Afghan security forces remain a force that’s able to defend their country? The issue is whether the people, the security forces and the government accept their new leadership. And equally important are the losing candidates -- will they accept defeat and rally their supporters to support a new government?”

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Stephanie Gaskell is associate editor and senior reporter for Defense One

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