Following the U.S. Government's announcement of troop drawdown from Afghanistan, the first contingent of American troops left the country marking the beginning a process that will see 33,000 American troops withdrawn from Afghanistan by the fall of 2012. Since that announcement, many of the countries contributing troops to the NATO-led international coalition have also followed the American lead and announced similar troop withdrawals of their own.
Of close to 50 countries that contribute troops to the international coalition, 18 of them maintain troop levels of above 500, making them the largest contributors to the Afghanistan mission. More than half of these countries have announced their plans for starting a withdrawal from Afghanistan starting in late 2011 and throughout 2012. Other countries, whose individual troop contributions are minimal in the range of a few hundred, will maintain their current troop levels through 2011 and 2012.
French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, during his visit to Afghanistan announced that his country will pull out 1,000 troops out of the current 4,000 by the end of 2012. Other major troop contributing countries such as U.K., Poland, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark and Romania have all announced that they will withdraw troops in line with the American plans of gradual disengagement. Canada and Netherlands are the first countries who have ended their military missions in Afghanistan. The last contingent of Canadian military units left Kandahar on July 05, 2011 after a 9-year old mission that saw 157 Canadian soldiers laying their lives in service of the cause of a secure, democratic and peaceful Afghanistan.
In what is a signal of the growing exasperation of Europeans, these countries have seized upon the American withdrawal plans using it as a justification to quicken their own disengagement from a costly and difficult war and calm the heated nerves back home. In the case of the U.S., Obama's decision to bring in 33,000 troops by the fall of 2012 was greeted with disquiet and unease by a military that saw the numbers as too high and potentially detrimental to preserving the gains made on the battlefields in Afghanistan. Admiral Mike Mullen, US chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told members of the U.S. House Armed Services Committee that Obama's drawdown plan is "more aggressive and incur more risk than I was originally prepared to accept".
However, he also pointed to the drawbacks of keeping too many American troops for too long which, according to him, would make the Afghan National Security Forces too dependent on American forces for doing what will ultimately be their job to do. "The truth is, we would have run other kinds of risks by keeping more forces in Afghanistan longer," he said in his opening statement. "We would have made it easier for the [President] Karzai administration to increase their dependency on us. We would have denied the Afghan security forces, who have grown in capability, opportunities to further exercise that capability and to lead."
Perhaps more vocal have been the influential Republican senator, John McCain, who criticized Obama's drawdown numbers and termed it as posing "unnecessary risk". "I'm very concerned that the president's decision poses an unnecessary risk to the progress we've made thus far, to our mission, and to our men and women in uniform." Mr. McCain's statement does have a basis in the realities on the ground in Afghanistan at a time when the Taliban's insurgency has been on ascendency, their morale at its peak and the international community's resolve to stay the course in Afghanistan abating.
Another American official, Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, termed the status of the war in Afghanistan as favorable for the U.S., international coalition and the government of Afghanistan. At a hearing before the U.S. Congress, she said the U.S. had "broken the Taliban's momentum" and that "We do begin this drawdown from a position of strength."The facts on the ground in Afghanistan and Taliban's resilience, despite the recent setbacks they have sustained on the battlefields, however, point to a rather different picture of the war in Afghanistan.
While the Taliban have suffered grave setbacks on the battlefields having many of their high-ranking and mid-level commanders captured or killed in recent months, the fight against them is far from over. As many American and allied commanders in Afghanistan have said, the gains made against Taliban and other militant groups especially in the South remain "fragile" and "reversible". Therefore, the gains and successes that Ms. Clinton and other American officials refer to in their remarks would nonetheless require long-term military effort and commitment to be preserved.The Taliban and other militant groups have proved time and again that they are a particularly resilient breed. Military victories are easy to fade away in front of Taliban's machinations if the military victories are not accompanied by long-term processes of aiding the local state administrations deliver governance in ways that can gain the confidence of local populations taking to account the social communities' structures and other local realities.
More important still is the acceleration of the process of training and equipping the Afghan National Security Forces as the deadline of 2014 draws closer.The international community led by the U.S. as well as the government of Afghanistan need to be mindful of Taliban's resolve to press ahead with their insurgency in spite of the numerous olive branches and shows of goodwill being extended to them. The kind of insurgency that the international coalition and the government of Afghanistan are grappling with in Afghanistan is vastly different from the Arab insurgency in post-2003 Iraq which by and large has ceased by now. This forms the principal reason why David Petraeus's successful "Petraeus Doctrine" in Iraq which resulted in pacifying the country after 2007 has been a failure in Afghanistan.
There can be no escaping the imperative of tying future troop drawdown in Afghanistan to tangible progress on the ground taking to account the overall security scenario, Afghan National Security Forces progress and the state administration and governance improvements. Balancing through all the variants that determine the success or failure in the lead-up to and after 2014 is a critical task. In the end, whether or not the government of President Karzai in Kabul will take effective steps towards delivering good governance and rule of law is as important as the security assistance provided by the U.S.-led international coalition. The government of President Karzai too needs to do its share in putting the Afghan house in order.