No matter how many times President Barack Obama and his senior officials tell the world that the Americans will not be pulling out of Afghanistan in just 13 months time, most Afghans believe that the US endgame is already well under way. The same is true for governments of neighboring countries known for their interference and influence-seeking in the Hindu Kush.
That means everyone from Afghan warlords to Taliban and al-Qaida commanders to intelligence agencies in neighboring states have upped their game to undercut rivals, achieve their aims and further their influence. The danger is that Afghanistan will once again become, in the words of Lord Curzon, the 19th century British imperial figure, "the cockpit of Asia.''
Obama himself gave the game away when he said last December that even though 30,000 more US troops would be deployed to Afghanistan this year in a large military and civilian surge to drive back the Taliban, by July 2011 US forces will start withdrawing from the country and handing it over to the Afghans. By this October there will be 100,000 US and more than 40,000 other troops -- mainly from other NATO countries in Afghanistan -- and by next July they will start withdrawing.
Illiterate, Undertrained and Irresponsible
More than $25 billion has been poured into efforts to rebuild the Afghan army and police, but they are still largely illiterate, undertrained and irresponsible and nowhere near ready to take over nation-building tasks. Of the 5,200 Western military trainers that the US and NATO agreed were needed to mentor Afghan forces, only half have been deployed. And despite numerous promises, only 300 of those are Europeans.
For Afghans and powerful neighbors such as Pakistan, India and Iran, it is abundantly clear that the first American soldier to leave will be followed with a rush to the exit by European NATO countries, where the war has lost legitimacy and popularity. The Dutch have already declared their intentions to leave the critical southern province of Uruzghan this summer, the Canadians will leave Kandahar province next year followed possibly by the Danes. And the British have been asked by the Americans to leave Helmand province and redeploy to Kandahar.
Obama's surge was a well-considered notion except for the self-imposed time frame that has frustrated US commanders. On a positive note, the surge coincided with a new counterinsurgency strategy now embraced by NATO that puts an emphasis on protecting the people and pushing forward with development rather than killing insurgents. But that, too, requires time and not a 12-month deadline.
The US first applied its new military strategy in Marja, a small town in southern Helmand and center of the drugs trade. And yet the 15,000 Western and Afghan forces have still been unable to prevent the Taliban from returning to the town at night to lay mines in the roads, intimidate the population and prevent an Afghan administration from running the city.
Now US and NATO forces plan to launch the biggest offensive of the war this summer when over 20,000 troops will deploy to clear Kandahar city and adjoining Taliban-controlled districts before handing security over to Afghan forces. US General David Petraeus warned the population of Kandahar on a visit there on April 30 that the Taliban would retaliate and take ''horrific actions'' to disrupt the US-led offensive. The Taliban have since launched a wave of assassinations in broad daylight in the city, killing a dozen top Afghan officials including the deputy mayor of the city.
Three Continuing Crises
There are three ongoing crises that the international community has still failed to square up to. The first is the lack of a consistent Afghan partner. A new Pentagon report to the US Congress states that only 29 out of 121 key districts support President Hamid Karzai. Most Afghans are still sitting on the fence. Recent US pressure on Karzai to improve governance in Afghanistan and eliminate corruption continues to fall on deaf ears.
For the past nine years, American governments have been naive and inconsistent in their dealings with Karzai. During that time, the Afghan president has never considered good governance to be a serious issue -- why should he suddenly be expected to do so now? Meanwhile, the lack of trust between Karzai and the Americans has grown. The US first accused Karzai of rigging last year's presidential elections, then accepted the results only to fight with him again over governance issues, finally making up with Karzai so he could conduct an all important visit to Washington the week before last.
The second problem is that even if the US maintains a troop presence in Afghanistan for another five years, as it is likely to do, the Europeans will certainly decline to do so. According to recent polls, 72 percent of Britons want their troops out of Afghanistan immediately, as do 62 percent of Germans. Polling across Europe -- from Spain to Sweden -- shows that over 50 percent of Europeans have had enough and want their troops to come home.
Thus Afghanistan's immediate crisis is also in the corridors of NATO in Brussels and European capitals because no European government can afford to sustain a foreign policy that is so deeply unpopular at home and costs so much in terms of blood and treasure for very long. So it was not surprising to see US and European leaders agree at the April 23 NATO meeting in Tallinn to start transferring control of some provinces of Afghanistan back to the Afghan government by the end of this year. NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen's statement that ''increasingly this year the momentum will be ours'' seemed overly optimistic and hollow. Many Afghans would call such a move a retreat rather than an advance.