With the number of foreign soldiers killed in Afghanistan surpassing 2,000 this weekend, what does the road ahead in that country look like?
The tally – now at 2,002 – comes from the independent iCasualties.org website. It includes 1,227 Americans, 331 Britons, 151 Canadians, and 45 French.
The mounting numbers have put pressure on coalition countries to wrap up their involvement in Afghanistan; the Netherlands ended its military mission Aug. 1, after four years. At the very least, such grim milestones offer a moment for taking stock and seeing what lies ahead.
September: another Afghan election
Afghanistan is planning to hold parliamentary elections Sept. 18. More than 2,000 candidates are running for 240 seats in the lower house.
A top election official expressed serious concerns Saturday about the security preparations for the more than 6,000 polling stations. So far, two candidates have been killed, three kidnapped, and 10 threatened with death. Both candidates and voters have shifted their registration to Kabul due to insecurity in the provinces.
Early warning signs like voter registration problems and cynicism among candidates themselves suggest this election – like last year’s presidential contest – could be dogged by fraud.
October: winter slowdown?
Traditionally, the intensity of the Afghan conflict has decreased over the winter months as some mountain passes fill with snow. That slowdown tends to start sometime in October or November.
If the trend continues this year, it could take some of the political pressure off President Obama as he enters a couple of crucial reviews. The first will be rendered by the American people, as they head to the polls in November; the second will be a strategic reassessment of the Afghan “surge.”
November: US congressional elections
Whether the Afghan war factors much in the upcoming congressional elections remains to be seen. On the one hand, voters tell pollsters that it’s far from top of mind. In a Gallup poll released Friday, two-thirds of Americans rate economic concerns as the nation’s top problem. Only 4 percent mentioned war.
That said, Afghanistan has dealt Obama almost nonstop negative news since he came into office on a pledge to fully resource the war. The conflict has eroded some confidence in Obama among his base, which is increasingly restive over a range of issues.
Political analysts are expecting losses for the Democrats at the polls, putting pressure on Obama for midterm course changes. But those changes are likely to come in the domestic arena, given voter concerns. Even the criticisms about the growing deficit have largely remained domestic, with the "tea party" remaining mute on the $325 billion Afghan price tag so far.
December: Obama’s policy review
Obama will reassess this December the strategic course he announced last December, namely the temporary buildup of US soldiers to break the Taliban's momentum and strengthen Afghanistan's military and government.
In some ways, this reassessment was foreshadowed this summer when Obama chose a successor for Gen. Stanley McChrystal, then commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan. In tapping Gen. David Petraeus, Obama chose both the architect of the current strategy and the general with the most political capital in Washington. That decision makes significant changes in strategy unlikely.
Indeed, in interviews given to the press over the weekend, Petraeus said he did not come to Afghanistan to engineer a “graceful exit” and may recommend against any drawdown of troops next summer.
Meanwhile, Afghan President Hamid Karzai today set a December deadline for closure of all private security companies in the country. US military officials have said they support the goal but would not comment on whether it would be possible in four months. There are currently about 26,000 private security contractors working for the US government in Afghanistan; replacing them would constitute a major force reconfiguration.
July 2011: drawdown?
Lost in some of the initial reporting on Obama’s July “deadline” was that he only promised to begin drawing down force levels. That could mean bringing home tens of thousands of the current 140,000 foreign forces – or just a few thousand.