Summer 2013 brought one of the most violent fighting seasons in Afghanistan since the US military and state-building effort began in 2001. On the cusp of the momentous 2014 presidential elections and a year before the majority of international coalition forces would depart from the country in the midst of transferring security functions to the coalition-supported Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), the Taliban is dug in and still ferocious. It is testing the Afghan security forces, which since June 2013 are supposed to be taking the lead in providing security throughout the country while international forces are increasingly disengaging from combat and departing Afghanistan.
The military plans of the Obama administration (including the 2010 surge) assumed that by the time the coalition forces began scaling down their presence, they would be able to hand over to the Afghans large parts of the country's territory secured and cleared of the Taliban. Four and a half years later, some real progress had been achieved, such as in central Helmand and Kandahar--both of which used to be either intense battle zones or under the Taliban's sway. But the territory cleared of the Taliban is much smaller than had been projected. The US and NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) are handing the Afghans a stalemated war, attempting to increase the ANSF's capacity enough to beat back the Taliban insurgency while simultaneously constricting their own capacity to operate in Afghanistan. With every passing day, the Taliban adage "foreigners have watches while the Taliban has the time" is felt more strongly in the hot and dusty Afghan summer air.
The 2014 Triple Earthquake
Indeed, 2014 will bring a triple earthquake to Afghanistan--a security one, an economic one, and a political one.
The Security Earthquake
With the departure of the ISAF for Afghanistan, security will inevitably deteriorate. The Afghan forces have become much better than they were at any time during the past decade, but they are nowhere on par with the ISAF forces. They continue to suffer from deeply inadequate logistical, sustainment, and other support capabilities and are also deeply pervaded by corruption, nepotism, and ethnic and patronage fissures.
Many questions surround the security transition: Will the Afghan security forces stay together after 2014 or will they break up along patronage lines and ethnic cleavages? Will their morale stay sufficiently strong to fight the Taliban and associated insurgent groups such as the Haqqani network, or will they give up the fight? Will the rising militias that reflect heightened ethnic tensions among and within Pashtun, Tajik, Hazara, Uzbek, and other ethnic groups create local security dilemmas that will escalate? Will the Afghan Local Police, one of the militia forces sponsored by ISAF to provide security to remote communities abused by the Taliban and often neglected by the government, be an effective supplement to fight the Taliban or will they become vet another mechanism of abuse by predatory local Afghan powerbrokers?
Questions regarding US military and other support for Afghanistan after 2014 remain unresolved. The international community has repeatedly committed itself not to abandon Afghanistan like it had in the early 1990s after supporting the mujahideen forces to fight the Soviet invasion. When international attention and support for Afghanistan ended in the early 1990s, Afghanistan exploded into a vicious civil war that ultimately gave rise to the Taliban. A part of this post-2014 support that the US has also embraced is to continue military support for counterterrorism operations and to continue training and mentoring the Afghan security forces. But this support is conditioned on the US and Afghanistan signing a bilateral security agreement permitting and defining the presence of US troops after 2014. So far the negotiations have been deeply troubled and stalled. …