The timetable is set: Nato forces, led by the US, will hand over security responsibilities to their Afghan partners next year and withdraw from the country by 2014. After more than a decade of fighting, and with riot police in the streets, Nato leaders in Chicago yesterday agreed to the plans.
There's no shortage of commentary on whether the Afghan government and its fledgling army can survive the transition. Nato countries will certainly continue to funnel aid to the Karzai government after the withdrawal, but for the time being it's the withdrawal – not the aftermath – that's the focus of attention. That doesn't leave much hope for Afghans, or for the few successful projects that have been implemented to help them during the intervention.
The 'students' will take back the schools
The meandering war in Afghanistan – declared after the September 11 attacks, and relaunched by Barack Obama – has lost public support. Americans (who, after the people of Afghanistan, have born the brunt of the campaign) now overwhelmingly support withdrawal; and new reports suggest that special envoy Ryan Crocker will step down this summer.
The human, moral and financial costs of the war have been enormous – but the US-led occupation has driven some very positive changes in Afghanistan, too. As Ashley Jackson points out in an incisive (if disheartening) blog post for the Overseas Development Institute, infrastructure was built, girls went back to school, and access to healthcare was improved. Now, Jackson notes:
... that progress is unravelling and the humanitarian situation is beginning to deteriorate. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reports that internal displacement has risen sharply over the past year and Amnesty International estimates that an average of 400 Afghans are forced to flee conflict or disasters each day. In 2011 polio rates tripled after years of steady decline.
Women in public life have been increasingly threatened or attacked. Over 100 schools in eastern Afghanistan’s Ghazni province alone have been shut down in recent weeks and in some Taliban-controlled areas "underground" schools have re-emerged – the only way girls can be educated. Many educated Afghans, the brightest hopes for the future of the country, are considering their own exit strategies.
From 'just war' to enough war
A full-scale Nato withdrawal will massively accelerate these problems. But the troubling truth is that these failures – to fight for education and gender parity and against poverty and disease – persisted throughout a decade of occupation. The girls' schools are closing with Nato troops on the ground; atrocities against women occurred at the height of the US deployment.
According to a sharp analysis by David E Sanger in the New York Times, this disturbing reality informed President Obama's views on the war soon after he took office:
Mr Obama concluded in his first year that the Bush-era dream of remaking Afghanistan was a fantasy, and that the far greater threat to the United States was an unstable, nuclear-armed Pakistan. So he narrowed the goals in Afghanistan, and narrowed them again, until he could make the case that America had achieved limited objectives in a war that was, in any traditional sense, unwinnable.
“Just think how big a reversal of approach this was in just two years,” one official involved in the administration debates on Afghanistan said. “We started with what everyone thought was a pragmatic vision but, at its core, was a plan for changing the way Afghanistan is wired. We ended up thinking about how to do as little wiring as possible.”
And so it appears that Obama's pragmatism will bring an end to foreign troop presence (a welcome development in and of itself). But it won't end the war.
Further reading: Check out Jackson's full commentary and Sanger's solid analysis. And for the most powerful and accurate foreign depiction of the conflict watch the late, great Tim Hetherington's film Restrepo.