The United States enters its "final" year in Afghanistan with none of its major goals secured and an uncertain future for achieving them. The major unknown that dominates all issues is the state of Afghanistan's government, which faces what will almost certainly be a corrupt presidential election in April. Washington has little influence over how this wild card will be played - and little choice but to see how its risky gamble turns out.
When President Barack Obama decided in 2009 to roughly double the size of the U.S. military commitment to Afghanistan, he said the move was necessary to prevent the Taliban from taking over the country and inviting al-Qaida to use it, once again, as a base for attacking the United States.
But former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, in a new memoir, sharply faults the president - and his administration - for making his re-election a higher priority than success in Afghanistan.
And President Obama has hedged on his commitment to the Afghan government by pledging to withdraw American forces in 2014, giving an incentive for the Taliban and its Pakistani backers to wait it out.
The president's response to the critics was that his plan would leave behind an Afghan government able to defeat the Taliban and take care of itself.
What he didn't say is that Afghanistan had, and has, a very unreliable government, starting at the top with President Hamid Karzai.
In the last six months Afghan military forces have succeeded in establishing themselves in Helmand Province without U.S. combat forces despite repeated Taliban attacks. But they have not yet succeeded in dislodging the Taliban forces remaining in the province, and are still relying on U.S. advisers, supplies and air power.
And a recent major U.S. intelligence estimate concluded that the Afghan army will be unable to stand alone if left to its own devices, and that the Taliban will be in a position to seize power within two to three years after the departure of all U.S. and NATO forces, now scheduled for December.
The United States and NATO have proposed continuing military assistance to the government of Afghanistan after the departure of major combat forces this year. The assistance would consist of advisers and trainers for Afghanistan's military and police forces, and logistical and close air support for Afghan forces fighting to contain and defeat the Taliban. Some estimates say such support will be needed for the next 10 years, at least.
Continuing foreign economic assistance to Afghanistan is also contingent on the government agreeing to this plan.
But Afghanistan's erratic President Karzai, whose term expires in April, has refused to sign the agreement and is reportedly working to assure the choice of a hand-picked successor in early April elections. Karzai's last victory at the polls was clouded by ballot-stuffing in Pashtun areas of the country where Taliban sympathies are strong. There is concern that this pattern will be repeated.
Mr. Karzai may simply be hoping to extract a larger financial payoff for himself. But the possibility looms that the U.S. and other foreign governments, already under public pressure to cut their losses, will be forced to give up the effort to consolidate gains against the Taliban in Afghanistan.
As the recent fall of Fallujah to al-Qaida in Iraq warns, that could have serious long-term consequences that would put hard-fought gains at serious risk.
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