At times in 2008 Afghanistan eclipsed Iraq in levels of violence, and international attention is returning to the country for the first time since 2001. With the Obama administration planning a massive troop increase, Afghanistan and Pakistan look to be at the center of the administration's foreign policy for 2009.
What is at stake?
In 2008, violence reached record levels across the country – there were 50 percent more insurgent attacks in the first seven months of 2008 than in the same period in 2007, according to Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief (ACBAR), a Kabul-based aid organization. Insurgents are "conservatively estimated to be active in over 35 percent of the country," says Nic Lee of the Afghan NGO Safety Office, a Kabul-based nongovernmental organization. The Taliban and its allied movements effectively control large parts to the Pashtun-dominated south and east, including many districts close to Kabul. Nearly as many international troops have been killed in Afghanistan this year as in Iraq, despite the fact that almost twice as many soldiers are deployed in Iraq.
"I won't say that things are all on the right track, especially in the south and east," David McKiernan, the top commander in the country, told reporters earlier this year. "So the idea that it might get worse before it gets better is certainly a possibility."
The international community can't afford to fail in Afghanistan, says Haroun Mir of the Kabul-based Afghanistan Center for Research and Policy Studies. An international defeat would deliver a crucial blow to Western strategic interests – Washington would lose a foothold in a region where rival powers such as Iran wield growing influence, and its ability to strike at Islamic extremists such as Al Qaeda would be greatly diminished.
However, experts say that an outright military defeat is unlikely in 2009 or beyond. The international forces are too strong in numbers, funding, and technology to be defeated by Taliban guerrillas, says Habibullah Rafeh, a policy analyst with the Kabul-based Afghanistan Academy of Sciences. Instead, he says the real danger is the West remaining bogged down in a protracted military conflict that could last decades and cost billions.
Can the US turn things around?
The incoming Obama administration pledges to focus more attention on Afghanistan and Pakistan, which critics say were overshadowed by Iraq in recent years. As many as 20,000 additional troops may head to Afghanistan this year. Many of these troops will be deployed in provinces close to Kabul, which currently do not have a significant international presence and are largely under insurgent control.
Military officials say that the additional troops are needed to build a permanent presence in villages and towns. "It doesn't help when [we] go into villages, hand out soccer balls, kill a few insurgents, and then go away," says an officer with NATO forces, who requested anonymity when speaking about military strategy. Instead, he says troops need to hold the territory they have gained and initiate reconstruction projects so that the local population can see the benefits of their presence.
However, many observers say that the additional troops may not be enough to secure the country. The surge will at best bring the total force strength to nearly 90,000, which is still far short of the US presence in Iraq or the Soviet presence during the 1980s. In addition, although there has been a large troop increase over the past two years, violence has increased over the same period.
In December, Western officials announced a plan to arm tribes against the insurgents, recalling a strategy in Iraq that helped weaken Al Qaeda there. The move is highly controversial in Afghanistan, which has a history of civil war and clashing militias.
A more popular strategy among officials is negotiating with the insurgents to end the fighting. The first steps toward reconciliation were made in 2008 when the Afghan government approached former Taliban figures in hopes of sparking a dialogue with current insurgent leaders. Such meetings are expected to continue in 2009, and Washington has publicly backed talks with all but the most senior Taliban leaders.
Washington is also backing Kabul's efforts to reconcile with lower-ranking insurgents. "You talk to ... people who may have fought for local reasons, [such as] tribal reasons," says Richard Boucher, assistant secretary of state for South Asian affairs. "There are a number of programs under way [that will] eat away at the support base for the Taliban."
What is Pakistan's role?
Western officials accuse some elements of the Pakistani military of supporting militants based on Pakistani soil who cross into Afghanistan and launch attacks. This has long been a source of tension between the two countries, but in recent years some militants allied with Al Qaeda have also launched a war against Pakistan. The result is that Islamabad follows a duel policy of cracking down on militants arrayed against the Pakistani state – which includes Al Qaeda – but covertly tolerating militants who restrict their fighting to Afghanistan, critics say.
Despite this, Washington and Islamabad's shared war against Al Qaeda has brought the two closer together. American officials say increased pressure from their side as well as the rise of a civilian government in Islamabad have brought cooperation to an all-time high. The Pakistani and American militaries are now undertaking joint military operations along the Afghan-Pakistani border, for example.
However, if violence continues to worsen in 2009 and Pakistan is not seen to crack down on the Afghan insurgents, tensions between the two countries could rise again. In addition, US officials expect to continue the policy of airstrikes in Pakistani territory, which Pakistanis oppose. Finally, tensions between India and Pakistan could distract Islamabad from its fight against militants and hurt its relations with the West.
What's ahead for the Afghan government?
Presidential elections are scheduled for the fall and could prove pivotal. Analyst Mr. Rafeh says that poor security conditions in many parts of the country may preclude elections and deal a major blow to Washington, which views elections as a benchmark of success.
The government is under fire from all sides for being corrupt and ineffective, and Hamid Karzai's popularity has plunged as a result. Nonetheless, a lack of strong alternatives might give him an easy victory if elections do occur, albeit with a low voter turnout.
Eroding support for the central government and the poor security environment risk undermining the gains made in the post-Taliban era, which include the country's first democratically elected government, and advances in the spread of education and healthcare.
What is NATO's future in the country?
The 41 NATO countries involved in Afghanistan – who make up roughly 55,000 of the 70,000 troops in the country – have differing rules of operation. Some refuse to deploy to combat-intensive zones and others have already set withdrawal dates. "The international forces can't fight the Taliban if they don't have a unified command and outlook," says Rafeh.
On the battlefield, some consolidation is already taking place. US and NATO forces now answer to a single commander, for example. For 2009, the international forces plan to put command of the volatile southern region permanently under the Americans, instead of the current arrangement of rotating leadership between NATO countries. Officials say this will make the military effort more streamlined and effective.
On the political level, observers expect progress to be slower. Many countries have to deal with their own internal politics, says Rafeh. It might be politically risky for Germany to send troops to the violent south when the majority of its population is antiwar.
The danger in this, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned nearly a year ago, is in NATO becoming "a two-tiered alliance of those willing to fight and those who are not."