Winding Down a War

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from TIME Magazine,

All U.S. combat troops are set to leave the country by year’s end.

America’s longest war will finally end this year, when the last of the U.S. combat troops who stormed into Afghanistan in 2001 withdraw by Dec. 31. While that will be cause for relief in the U.S., Afghanistan is bracing for possible disaster. What happens over the next 12 months could determine whether that ill-fated country limps toward stability or plunges into even greater violence.

Afghanistan has paid dearly for more than a decade of war but is better off in many ways. Al-Qaeda is gone, the Taliban control little territory, millions of girls are attending school, and such metrics as cell-phone access and public health have soared. Those gains will long be fragile, however, and whether they promptly collapse after Uncle Sam departs will depend on how 2014 unfolds. Perhaps the most important question is the fate of a security agreement negotiated between the Obama Administration and Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Under a deal struck with handshakes and smiles in November, the U.S. will leave behind a residual force of up to 12,000 troops to conduct training and counter-terrorism operations. That will be crucial to shoring up a 320,000-man Afghan military and police force that is short on discipline, air power and logistical support.

But soon after the agreement was unanimously endorsed by a 2,500-member loya jirga, or grand council, Karzai balked. He demanded more concessions from the U.S., including an end to military raids on Afghan homes suspected of harboring Taliban and the possible release of prisoners from Guantanamo Bay. He also suggests his country might be best served by breaking entirely from the U.S., which he likens to a “colonial power.”

Obama officials suspect Karzai is bluffing, asserting his influence and relevance as his presidency winds down before an April 5 election picks his successor. Yet the bluster risks forcing the U.S. and its NATO partners to walk away from Afghanistan entirely. That would mean leaving behind no residual troops and cutting off most foreign aid, including the $4 billion per year needed to sustain the Afghan security forces. The result could be a savage civil war–reminiscent of the one that followed the Soviet exit in 1989–among the country’s many fractious ethnic groups. Afghanistan will already be hard pressed to survive a gradual weaning from Western economic aid and could face an all-out crash if that spigot closes entirely.

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