As the troops head for home, a week ahead of schedule, the American coalition and its Afghan partners are bedeviled by a host of problems.
The Taliban and their Haqqani network allies continue to pull off bombings, while insider killings of Americans by Afghan troops have raised tensions between the allies, forcing severe cutbacks in strategically vital training programs. Both governments are arguing publicly over whether to keep battlefield prisoners locked up without trial, while nervous officials on all sides are worrying that riots over an inflammatory anti-Muslim video, which have killed dozens in other countries, will break out in Afghanistan.
Friday’s milestone, which still leaves 68,000 American troops in Afghanistan, was announced on the other side of the planet by the American secretary of defense, Leon E. Panetta, during a trip to New Zealand, while both American and Afghan officials here studiously ignored the moment, at least in public.
Some Afghans supporting the government of President Hamid Karzai boasted that it showed their own forces were ready to take over, while pro-Taliban forces exulted that they were not. But most Afghans just worried about what it would really mean for the final two years of the American presence here.
“What did the surge give us?” a senior American official reflected on Friday, speaking anonymously as a matter of military policy. “We’re going to hit a point where, I won’t say that’s as good as it gets, but now it’s up to them to hold what we gave them. Now, really, it’s Karzai’s turn.”
No one claimed there was not a great deal yet to be done against an insurgency that its foes describe as tenacious and determined. “They’re not going to go away for years,” the senior official said. “Every fighting season the Taliban, or some number of them, come out of the corner and they’re ready to fight again.”
Both American and Afghan officials have acknowledged the seriousness of the so-called green-on-blue attacks, in which this year more than 50 American soldiers were killed at the hands of Afghan allies. The allies’ dispute over how and how long to hold suspected insurgents has led to personal negotiations between President Obama and Mr. Karzai in recent days, while the video parody of the Prophet Muhammad has cast a long shadow over relations between the two countries.
“We were not happy about the arrival of the surge troops, and we are not sad that they left,” said Mohammad Naim Lalai Amirzai, an Afghan Parliament member from Kandahar. “As the American surge ends, the Taliban surge will begin.”
Indeed, some of the most worried voices were raised in the heartland of the surge, in Kandahar and Helmand Provinces in the south and southwest where the 2010 influx of 33,000 fresh United States Marines and Army soldiers largely subdued the Taliban on their home turf.
Post-surge, the capital cities of those provinces are more peaceful than they have been in many years, and the Taliban operate only clandestinely in the rural areas. But operate they still do.
Ten southern districts, of the 400 in Afghanistan, are responsible for 45 percent of all attacks, according to statistics provided by officials of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force. According to those statistics, three of the five most active districts over the past 90 days, Panjwai and Zhare in Kandahar, and Nad Ali in Helmand, were also early focuses of the military’s surge efforts.
Nad Ali is adjacent to Marja, where Marines began the first surge-related offensive. In districts once dominated by American troops, then by growing numbers of newly trained Afghan troops alongside them, residents face the prospect that in many cases it will soon be just Afghan forces. In Maiwand district, one such place, where a roadside bomb exploded as recently as Friday morning, an elder named Haji Abdullah Jan said he was worried about what he saw as a lack of commitment from government forces.
“There are soldiers and policemen who are not obeying their commanders,” he said, “but the Taliban are committed to their jobs.” Like many local residents, he likened the insurgents to a crouching tiger, waiting for the moment to pounce.
“At least during the first two years the surge was very successful. It really reversed the Taliban momentum in most parts of Helmand, Kandahar and other southwestern provinces,” said Jawid Kohistani, a Kabul-based military analyst and a former Afghan intelligence chief. “If the achievements of the surge seem ‘fragile and reversible’ today, it is because of the failure of the Afghan security forces and the Afghan government to fill the void and cultivate a good relationship with the locals.”
He was referring to an oft-repeated remark of the previous American commander here, Gen. David H. Petraeus, who presided over much of the surge period, that gains in Afghanistan are “fragile and reversible.”
The senior American official said he disagreed with the Taliban view that “the Americans have all the watches, and we have all the time,” and that they are just biding their time until America’s withdrawal of the rest of its normal combat forces by the end of 2014.
“It’s not like time is on their side,” he said. “They lose their relevance, lose their donors, limit their power at the negotiating table; they’re not just going to hide and wait.”
While Taliban activity has been greatly curtailed by surge forces in the insurgents’ traditional areas in the south and west, they responded by increasing their efforts elsewhere, officials say.
The insurgents also shifted increasingly to the use of roadside bombs and suicide bombers, instead of small arms and ground attacks where they would be outnumbered and outgunned. That greatly increased the number of civilian casualties, more than three-fourths of which are attributed to insurgents’ attacks, according to United Nations figures. For the first time this year, the overall civilian casualties began to decline in number, according to both NATO and United Nations figures, compared with last year.
However, the level of violence remains higher than it had been before the surge forces came. Brig. Gen. Dadan Lawang, the commander of the Afghan National Army’s 201st Corps, said the biggest change of the surge years has been the maturing of an increasingly self-sufficient fighting force.
“Even if more U.S. troops leave Afghanistan, we won’t see any negative impact because our troops are in a very good position to fight the Taliban independently,” he said, adding, “But we need the continuous support of the international community and the United States in particular.”
Reporting was contributed by Habib Zahori, Alissa J. Rubin and Matthew Rosenberg from Kabul, and Thom Shanker from Auckland, New Zealand.
Original article on NYTimes