WASHINGTON (Reuters) - In order to win its high-stakes wager in Afghanistan, the Obama administration must ensure security trends can hold, peace talks gain traction and governance improves — all with fewer troops and less time.
If it cannot, the United States and its partners may join other world powers who tried, and failed, to tame that restless nation in the past.
“It is all too clear that they are also in a race — a race against time, against resources, and the enemy — that they simply may not win,” wrote Anthony Cordesman, a security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
On Wednesday, President Barack Obama unveiled a plan to start bringing U.S. troops home at a faster pace than proposed by the Pentagon, a decision that has alarmed top U.S. brass who fear it could squander military gains.
Obama said he would pull out a third of the 100,000 troops now in Afghanistan by the end of next summer. The remainder will come home at a steady pace.
Obama’s advisors defended his plan on Thursday, saying his decision to send an extra 30,000 troops to Afghanistan last year had delivered both real and symbolic victories, pushing the Taliban out of their southern heartland.
The president, visiting troops of the 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum, N.Y., said, “We have turned a corner where we can begin to bring back some of our troops.”
But southern Afghanistan is still far from stable, and the picture is less encouraging elsewhere. Violence has intensified along the rugged eastern border, and even the top U.S. military officer warned in blunt terms on Thursday that conditions may deteriorate if rigorous conditions are not met.
“The progress we have made, though considerable, can still be reversed without our constant leadership, the contributions of our partners ... or a more concerted effort by the Afghan government,” Admiral Mike Mullen said.
Even in areas that epitomize the modest successes Obama’s troop-intensive strategy has achieved, such as southern Kandahar, U.S. soldiers there are already thinly spread and fret about what a rapid drawdown will mean.
Military commanders will likely have to withdraw significant numbers of troops at the height of next summer’s fighting season in order to meet a September deadline.
“This really, really constrains the military in 2012,” said Ronald Neumann, former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan.
Obama’s security strategy also rests on the West’s ability to create a competent local fighting force, which virtually all observers agree is key to Afghanistan’s long-term stability. The speedier drawdown will mean fewer U.S. troops mentoring Afghans.
Even as a gradual security transition begins, there is little evidence local security forces will be ready to secure Afghanistan any time soon.
Yet the obstacles the Obama administration faces off the battlefield make its military challenges look straightforward. A decade and billions of dollars in Western aid efforts have made little headway in creating a stable Afghan state.
U.S. ties with Afghan President Hamid Karzai are at best testy and at worst openly hostile. Corruption has reached epidemic levels; the economy remains in shambles; the booming opium trade continues to fund insurgents.
On Thursday, a special court set up by Karzai after a fraud-marred election last year threw out results for about a quarter of Afghanistan’s parliament.
Far from being seen as a step toward ending months of political paralysis, the move deepened questions about the credibility of Afghan officialdom.
Even as Washington rushes to show results from its ‘civilian surge’ of diplomats and aid workers, an impatient U.S. Congress may well slash the budget for Afghan aid efforts it feels have fallen flat.
Obama’s plan for gradually shrinking the U.S. footprint will also depend on Washington’s ability to foster a political settlement with the Taliban, which may choose to wait out dwindling appetite for U.S. military engagement in Afghanistan.
“The bottom line is no number of troops will resolve the challenge of Afghanistan,” John Kerry, the influential Democratic senator, said on Thursday.
Both the United States and Britain have confirmed they are reaching out to the Taliban. But earlier efforts to get peace negotiations underway have failed and it is hard to gauge the likelihood the secretive initiative will succeed.
If other conflicts are any guide, it could take far longer to clinch a peace deal than U.S. politicians are willing to wait as they seek to refocus on the flagging economy and other domestic priorities.
Yet officials concede that biggest challenge for the United States in Afghanistan is not in Afghanistan. Without progress in curbing militant groups operating in neighboring Pakistan, it is unlikely a wobbly Afghan state can survive.
U.S. officials are leaning hard on Islamabad after last month’s raid that killed Osama bin Laden deepened suspicions in Washington about Pakistan’s complicity with militants. Plans for a relatively swift U.S. drawdown, Neumann said, will require more Pakistan action against militants.
“But if they think we’re leaving, why should they do more of what we want?” he asked.
Writing by Missy Ryan; Editing by Anthony Boadle