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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While the details of what happened are still unclear, the incident has laid bare lingering bilateral tensions and the gap between U.S. and Pakistani ambitions for Afghanistan.Skip to next paragraph
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U.S. officials are pressing ahead with efforts to broker a deal outlining the long-term U.S.-Afghan relationship even though night raids and other issues remain sticking points.
The deal will include a commitment in principle to a U.S. military presence after 2014, which will focus on supporting Afghan forces and on targeted operations against militants.
U.S. officials insist Washington is not walking away. One senior U.S. official said the goal of the conference in Bonn and an earlier one in Istanbul was "to send a message to the Taliban and anybody else that, actually, international engagement and investment in Afghanistan is not over."
FIGHT, TALK, BUILD
Despite tactical successes in the south, even Western military officials say Afghanistan cannot be won by fighting alone – it also requires effective diplomacy and a viable plan to put Afghanistan on its feet economically.
Yet the impact of the West's aid effort – Congress has provided nearly $73 billion to rebuild and train local forces since 2002 – is another question mark beyond some important achievements in education and maternal and child health.
The U.S. strategy now rests on two objectives: building a local army capable of fending off militants, and brokering a peace deal with the Taliban. Both are ambitious goals.
While Clinton has pointed to initial contact between U.S. officials and the insurgency in efforts to broker a peace deal, there is scant evidence that a substantive agreement can be reached in the near term. It is also a politically risky course for Obama with his re-election bid less than a year off.
Efforts to build a strong local security force have succeeded in adding and arming men – and in many cases teaching them to read – but it remains unclear whether this force will have the ability and desire to take on the Taliban and other groups as foreigners go home.
The West, especially the United States, will be required to underwrite that effort for years to come.
Analysts say the U.S. effort in Afghanistan remains hobbled by bureaucratic tensions and the lack of a shared goal for what Afghanistan can and should look like after 2014.
"We fought, we tried to build, and then quite belatedly we mapped out a strategy for trying to talk," said Katulis, of the Center for American Progress, referring to Clinton's triple strategy to 'fight, talk, build' in Afghanistan. "But those three components were never well synced with one another."