How long can a coalition remain committed to a conflict with no discernible victory in sight?
About a decade, apparently.
If anything seemed apparent at the NATO summit in Chicago this week, other than that street protests are ineffective and devoid of credibility, it was that the U.S. and its allies have had enough of Afghanistan. That decision is political more than practical. France's newly elected president campaigned on a promise to withdraw French troops earlier than planned. That added to tensions at the meeting, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel reminding everyone of the allies' agreement going into the war: "In together, out together."
In truth, however, it's difficult to draw any real connection between the decision to withdraw most soldiers by the end of 2014 and Afghanistan's ability to stand mostly on its own against Taliban insurgents. President Obama and military leaders, most notably Gen. John Allen, the top commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, made it clear that tough days lie ahead for Afghan fighters, and that turning the lead effort of the fighting mainly over the Afghans in the summer of 2013 won't remove coalition forces from harm's way.
By telegraphing the withdrawal date, and by publicly agitating for an even earlier retreat, coalition forces have given an advantage to the Taliban. They know precisely how long they must hold out before no longer having to worry about a foreign force that now numbers 130,000.
The alternatives, however, are few. A recent AP-GfK poll found only 27 percent of Americans now supporting the conflict with 66 percent in opposition. Most Americans now feel the conflict is unwinnable — a feeling that is understandable after 10 years of fighting. That sentiment has developed quite independent of the many protesters who descended on Chicago with a mixed and muddled set of demands and causes. They were little more than an irritant to local property owners and police, and were completely irrelevant to the proceedings.
With the conflict far from over, coalition forces run the risk that the Taliban one day will regain control of Afghanistan, rendering an entire decade of fighting, with all the attendant casualties, a wasted effort. Such a defeat also would erase the coalition's strategic advantage of having Afghanistan as an ally. To that end, one would think allied forces would be more generous in their support of the Afghan government. About $4.1 billion will be needed each year to support national security forces, according to estimates. The United States is pledging about half of that, with Afghanistan adding $500 million and Germany, Britain, Australia and others adding a combined $400 million. But it is not clear whether others will make up the difference.
The region's future also is clouded by Pakistan, a troublesome and conflicted ally that now refuses to allow allied forces to transport supplies and fuel across its borders into Afghanistan. The Pakistanis are demanding an apology from Obama for accidental air strikes last November — something for which the president says there is blame on both sides. Clearly, peace will not come to the region by the end of 2014, and not likely for a long time thereafter.
Even with a troop withdrawal, Afghanistan is likely to remain on the national agenda for a long time to come.