President Karzai (and his 2014 successor) will soon face a similar dilemma, though in all likelihood, what surely didn't feel like much of a choice to
Najibullah will feel equally constricting to Kabul in the coming years. The numbers and dynamics on the ground speak for themselves.
Assuming Washington is able to secure a Status of Forces Agreement with Kabul, U.S. forces will draw down to an expected 5,000-10,000 advisors and
counterterrorism professionals by the end of 2014. In the following three years, Afghan forces (police, military and border security) will collectively
contract from 352,000 to 230,000 due to budget constraints and a lack of international donors.
Currently, Afghan forces have significant difficulty holding territory on their own even when NATO forces secure it for them, to say nothing of their
ability to capture new territory independently. Worse still, Afghans are known for abandoning their outposts shortly after U.S. forces leave them in Afghan
hands; in one catastrophic 2011 instance, the Afghan army abandoned a fully-stocked, well-fortified, battalion-sized base to the Taliban in Kunar.
Given the terrain and vulnerability to NATO and Afghan forces, it is unsurprising that before his death Osama bin Laden even suggested Kunar and Nuristan
as havens for al Qaeda and Taliban fighters seeking refuge from the drones over northwest Pakistan, and many took his advice. Today, nearly all of Kunar
and Nuristan have been conceded to the Taliban, and the withdrawal of the final U.S. brigade in the region will surely widen the security vacuum.
Elsewhere, even when Afghan forces hold their ground, absent NATO forces goading and supporting them, they rarely leave or venture far from the confines of
their bases to engage the Taliban.
In due time, when the contraction of Afghan forces requires an even more acute realignment to protect only the country's most important population centers
and infrastructure (government buildings, roads, etc.), there won't even be the semblance of a military presence in the countryside, nor targets to draw
Taliban attention from the prized cities and district centers.
After 2014, CIA and U.S. special operations forces will try to compensate for these shortcomings by drastically increasing the number of drone strikes in
Afghanistan (which, by December 6, had exceeded 447 in 2012
alone). Predictably, while a counter-terrorism strategy might be sufficient to prevent locally planned attacks against the American homeland, it will not
be sufficient to protect Afghans who are sure to suffer an increase in domestic terrorism attacks like those seen throughout Iraq after the U.S. drawdown
Unpleasant as it is, the same geopolitical necessity that drove Najibullah to use Soviet money to play militias and mujahideen against each other
will lead Afghanistan's next president to do the same with American support. Karzai's successor will not be as ruthless as Najibullah was, yet neither will
he be under any illusions; he will not blindly hope for "victory" in the absence of more than 100,000 proficient soldiers and marines when their presence
couldn't even bring the Taliban to the negotiating table, much less to its knees. As a result, to keep militants from trying to contest populated areas, he
will feel compelled to knowingly instigate conflict in rural areas to keep fighting out of the dozens of small and large cities across the country. The
countless anti-Taliban militias, mostly dormant since the U.S. invasion, are sure to rise again, though absent coherent organization and effectiveness.
Kabul will seek to harness their efforts in order to keep the various Islamist elements busy in the countryside -- away from the people and institutions
that matter most to a threatened regime -- leaving rural Afghans to bear witness to the coming war.