As America and its coalition partners lurch toward the 2014 deadline for withdrawing from Afghanistan, the shaky prospects for cementing gains in the decadelong war are becoming clear. The security situation has vastly improved. But Taliban and al-Qaida forces still function effectively enough to frustrate the Western ideal of creating a stable, democratic society. Afghan President Hamid Karzai is a fickle partner who relies on Western troops and aid but demonizes NATO when it suits his domestic purposes. Europe is exhausted militarily and financially. And the United States faces new Afghan demands to cut back on counterterrorism operations, which are the most effective tool in the military campaign against the insurgency.
The atmosphere going into Monday's donor conference on Afghanistan was bleak enough even before Karzai laid out a laundry list of needs that would make his country a charity case for another two decades. In an address to representatives from dozens of nations and donor groups in Germany, Karzai said Afghanistan would need military and political support "for at least another decade" following the planned pullout of foreign troops in 2014. And he said Afghanistan would need continued financial assistance until 2030. Anything short of that, he warned, could bring the Taliban back to power, returning extremist rule and making the country again an epicenter for global terrorism.
These are not the words that war-weary Americans want to hear, and they expose the stark realities that the administration faces as it pursues a long-term security arrangement with the Karzai government. Americans are focused on ending the war, and the withdrawal deadline was supposed to induce the Afghan government to take charge of its security. Now Karzai is turning his failures into an argument for an extended military presence. Both sides have an interest in maintaining some relationship. But Karzai cannot seriously suggest that the United States is only at the midpoint of this war. And his insistence that night raids being carried out by U.S. Special Forces be halted shows that he is not committed to contributing to any real strategic partnership. Karzai is more interested in self-preservation than any world view or vision for his country.
Night raids are invaluable against an insurgency waging war in the absence of any front line, and continuing them, under responsible conditions and despite their intrusive nature on the Afghan population, should be a condition for maintaining a U.S. military presence. The impasse over the raids speaks to the larger breakdown of trust on military cooperation behind the scenes. Karzai compounds the problem by giving his donors sticker shock and suggesting that without billions of additional dollars in the coming decades the war could end up producing an unwelcome result.
The question for Americans in the next two years, made harder by the smog of a presidential campaign, is whether Karzai can build a functional government versus the shell of a centralized one. Washington should not rush into any new security arrangement. It needs a clearer idea of whether Afghanistan is more committed to its security as a unified state and its fate as a common people.