A decade on, what can the US accomplish in Afghanistan?
As senior US officials head to a major meeting on Afghanistan this coming week, underlying their talks will be a simple question: what can Washington hope to accomplish there with fewer troops, less money, and less time?
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Officials link investment in a long-term presence in Afghanistan – which could include bases and a major diplomatic footprint even after most foreign combat troops go home at the end of 2014 – to defending U.S. national security.Skip to next paragraph
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The military mission on the ground in Afghanistan, however, has been much broader than just defeating al Qaeda.
U.S. commanders say Obama's 2009 decision to deploy an extra 30,000 troops has paid off in the Taliban's southern heartland. They now hope to connect that to the capital.
Yet the outlook in the country's rugged east, where militants from the Haqqani network and other groups crisscross the lawless border with Pakistan, is much more troubling.
A series of high-profile attacks this fall, including an assault on the U.S. embassy in Kabul and the assassination of the former Afghan president, the country's top official for peace talks, also rattled the narrative of improving security.
"We have important work to do inside Afghanistan. I will say that a great deal of progress is being made. Insurgents have been under increasing pressure," Pentagon spokesman George Little told reporters on Friday.
"The enemy remains dangerous, and they are capable of violence, as we have seen, regrettably," he said.
Many worry that an array of militants, in the absence of enough foreign troops and an adequate improvement in local security forces, will plunge Afghanistan back into major violence.
"If you don't deal with that, then where are you going to be five years from now?" asked Jeffrey Dressler, a security analyst at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington.
"You could have even a greater sanctuary and safe haven than you had before 9/11," he said.
Military commanders are now drawing up plans for how they will stretch a shrinking force to match that threat as Obama moves to withdraw the surge force by next fall.
Underlying Obama's plans is the new fiscal reality of the U.S. government, mired in debt and facing big budget cuts.
"Here it's just pure numbers and the amount of money we're spending in Afghanistan," said Brian Katulis, a security analyst at the Center for American Progress.
The Pentagon has sunk $330 billion into Afghanistan. While lawmakers are loathe to be seen as stiffing the troops, support for future spending of that order is all but inconceivable.
Fiscal pressures are compounded by Congress' mounting exasperation with what they see as Karzai's erratic behavior and with growing recognition that Pakistan may never cooperate as desired against militants fueling violence in Afghanistan.
Even the most Herculean of U.S. efforts may not matter without more cooperation from Pakistan, which is boycotting the Bonn conference after NATO aircraft accidentally killed two dozen Pakistani soldiers along the Afghan border.