American combat operations in Afghanistan officially conclude at year's end, but does that mean the war is completely over and all the troops are coming home?
The post-2014 U.S. role in Afghanistan is outlined through a security agreement. Washington has all except abandoned hope that Afghan President Hamid Karzai would sign the deal, but policymakers are still counting on Karzai's successor to sign the pact, which might allow some U.S. troops to continue in the country after Afghan elections in April.
Gen. Joseph Dunford, who commands U.S. led coalition in Afghanistan, testified before Senate Armed Services Committee on Wednesday and would be back on Capitol Hill Thursday morning. In part to outline what war will look like after "the war" is over. Here are the main points.
1. How several U.S. troops would stay in the country?
The Pentagon expects anywhere from 8,000 to 12,000 NATO forces to stay in Afghanistan past the end of the year. American troops will comprise about two-thirds of this follow-on force. The thousand more U.S. troops, probable special operations forces, might be joining them to conduct counterterrorism operations.
2. What will these troops be doing?
The U.S. and NATO force would train, advice, and assist the local Afghan forces. Those forces are growing more adept at leading security operations, but they still need international help to become a functioning modern army and police force, Dunford said.
By 2015, the Afghan Air Force would not be fully developed. The intelligence enterprise would not be fully functioning. The military's special operations capabilities will be lacking. The security ministries, Dunford added, require assistance "in tasks such as planning, programming, budgeting, acquisition, and human resource management so they can give tactical units the support they require to function."
The Afghan forces "will clearly be in lead in the fight," Dunford said. "The only operations that I would envision us conducting in 2015 against an enemy would be counterterrorism operations."
3. How long will the U.S. and NATO troops stay?
That is unclear. The security agreement at first negotiated between Kabul and Washington would last until the end of 2024 and further than. Still, Karzai's still-unknown successor may not keep that agreement as written, and international troops might not stay that entire time anyway. Dunford demurred on answering this "complicated" question at the hearing.
4. Are the Afghan forces prepared for this transition?
Dunford, for his part, has faith in their abilities. "After watching the Afghan forces respond to several challenges since they took the lead in June, I don't believe the Taliban insurgency represents an existential threat to the government of Afghanistan or to Afghan security forces," he said. "I am also confident that they can secure the upcoming presidential election and nation's first democratic transfer of power."
Other than there are some reasons to doubt the Afghan forces. There were 14 "green-on-blue" attacks last year-that is, Afghan policy or military forces attacking coalition partners. That's fewer than the 48 incidents the year before, but, as Sen. Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, put it, "it's unbelievable." At the committee hearing, Manchin described meeting a young man wounded in combat. "His story, it tore me apart. [The man] said, 'I was shot, and I was shot by the person I trained for six months,' " Manchin said.
The Defense Intelligence Agency has also expressed concerns about Afghanistan's security forces as the U.S. phases out the mission. The local army and police "have shown development in their capability to clear insurgents from contested areas but have exhibited problems holding cleared areas long-term," Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn said in prepared testimony earlier this month. They "struggle because of the lack of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance," and capacity to combat roadside bombs.
5. With Karzai's refusal to sign the pact, how likely is it that U.S. troop would continue?
Pretty likely in spite of Karzai's unexpected course change after more than a year of negotiations with the U.S. on security agreement. The Afghan people appear to be in favor of a lasting pact with the U.S., and every Afghan presidential candidate so far has indicated they would be eager to sign it. "Any of them would likely be a more reliable partner than President Karzai," Dunford testified.
Yet, without a new security agreement with a new president, the U.S. would not leave any troops in the country. The Pentagon is preparing contingency plans to withdraw all remaining 34,000 U.S. troops from Afghanistan by year's end, just in case.
6. What is the most recent the U.S. can wait to sign this pact?
The U.S. has till July before crunch time. "If we have a new president by August, I'm comfortable that we will be able to maintain the options through that period of time without any difficulty," Dunford said.
Still, if there's no agreement by September, risk of being unprepared for also a complete withdrawal or leaving a follow-on force increases significantly.
"That's simply a function of the tasks that need be accomplished and how many days it needs to accomplish those tasks," Dunford said. There are some serious logistical hurdles of planning a follow-up mission to the Afghanistan war, for example coordinating with allies and figuring out what infrastructure to keep in the country. If the mission will in its place end altogether, U.S. still needs time to pull all its troops and equipment from country safely.
7. What happens if security agreement is never signed?
Paraphrasing Dunford, terrorists win.
The U.S. wants a future counterterrorism mission in Afghanistan to stop al-Qaida from regenerating and carrying out attacks on West. "Without continued counterterrorism pressure, an emboldened al-Qaida will not only begin to physically reconstitute other than they'll also exploit their perceived victory to advance recruitment, fundraising, and morale," Dunford said. The Afghan security forces, if left without U.S. advisers, will "begin to deteriorate," Dunford said, along with security environment. "The only debate is the pace of that deterioration."
Still, with majority of Americans in some polls urging a faster pullout from Afghanistan than President Obama is planning, a complete U.S. withdrawal might earn some cheers from the general public.