TIME Afghanistan

Winding Down a War

All U.S. combat troops are set to leave Afghanistan by year's end

America’s longest war will finally end this year, when the last of the U.S. combat troops who stormed into Afghanistan in 2001 withdraw by Dec. 31. While that will be cause for relief in the U.S., Afghanistan is bracing for possible disaster. What happens over the next 12 months could determine whether that ill-fated country limps toward stability or plunges into even greater violence.

Afghanistan has paid dearly for more than a decade of war but is better off in many ways. Al-Qaeda is gone, the Taliban control little territory, millions of girls are attending school, and such metrics as cell-phone access and public health have soared. Those gains will long be fragile, however, and whether they promptly collapse after Uncle Sam departs will depend on how 2014 unfolds. Perhaps the most important question is the fate of a security agreement negotiated between the Obama Administration and Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Under a deal struck with handshakes and smiles in November, the U.S. will leave behind a residual force of up to 12,000 troops to conduct training and counterterrorism operations. That will be crucial to shoring up a 320,000-man Afghan military and police force that is short on discipline, airpower and logistical support.

But soon after the agreement was unanimously endorsed by a 2,500-member loya jirga, or grand council, Karzai balked. He demanded more concessions from the U.S., including an end to military raids on Afghan homes suspected of harboring Taliban and the possible release of prisoners from Guantánamo Bay. He also suggests his country might be best served by breaking entirely from the U.S., which he likens to a “colonial power.”

Obama officials suspect Karzai is bluffing, asserting his influence and relevance as his presidency winds down before an April 5 election picks his successor. Yet the bluster risks forcing the U.S. and its NATO partners to walk away from Afghanistan entirely. That would mean leaving behind no residual troops and cutting off most foreign aid, including the $4 billion per year needed to sustain the Afghan security forces. The result could be a savage civil war–reminiscent of the one that followed the Soviet exit in 1989–among the country’s many fractious ethnic groups. Afghanistan will already be hard pressed to survive a gradual weaning from Western economic aid and could face an all-out crash if that spigot closes entirely.

A full break with Afghanistan would also bring real risk for the U.S., especially if anarchy allows for an al-Qaeda resurgence. Drone strikes from afar can limit the threat, but counterterrorism experts say there’s no substitute for the intelligence that boots on the ground working with locals can provide. “Even with core al-Qaeda removed, it’s likely that there would be some residual al-Qaeda or related affiliates that persist,” says a senior official. “We would retain the requirement to disrupt any threats. The preferred way for us to do that is in partnership with the Afghans.”

Not that many in Washington or elsewhere in the U.S. would object to saying goodbye. It was once smart politics to argue that America couldn’t walk away from Afghanistan. No longer. “If we withdraw, Afghanistan could go back to the 1990s and a civil war could break out again,” says Jonah Blank, a regional expert at the Rand Corp. “And the American public would not particularly care.” Representative Ted Deutch, a Florida Democrat, put it more bluntly: “Many of our constituents want us to bring home every last U.S. soldier, every one.”

Karzai may just be delaying the security agreement so his successor can ink the deal next spring–which would make post-2014 planning more difficult but not impossible for Washington. The leading candidates include two figures respected in the West: Abdullah Abdullah, a former Foreign Minister, and Ashraf Ghani, an ex–Finance Minister. (Karzai, who will move into a mansion adjacent to the presidential compound, is expected to maintain plenty of informal power.) Both are expected to welcome an extended NATO presence, and either would be a refreshing change from the mercurial Karzai, who exhausted Washington’s patience long ago.

The election process is another danger spot, however. Karzai’s 2009 election was fraud-ridden, creating a legitimacy crisis that crippled his government’s credibility. “If the spring elections are anything like the last ones, that will be a disaster for the country,” says Brian Katulis, a foreign policy expert at the left-leaning Center for American Progress.

The first task for whoever takes over will be guiding the country through the exit of the U.S.’s 48,000 remaining troops. (Few of them see regular combat these days; by late December, 117 Americans had been killed in Afghanistan in 2013, down from 492 in 2010. The 12-year war has left 2,161 Americans dead and more than 19,500 wounded.) The exact pace of the U.S. withdrawal has yet to be determined and may depend on how well Afghan forces–whose combat performance remains worryingly uneven–can manage alone.

Achieving something like real peace, which means a settlement with the Taliban and other power-hungry warlords, will be even harder. The Taliban remain unwilling to deal with the government in Kabul, and armed ethnic militias are girding for battle. Says Katulis: “We are not leaving behind a society poised to heal itself and move beyond its divisions.” But we’re not prepared to keep fighting a war for it either.

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