Textbooks documenting the U.S. war on terrorism will no doubt look to 2013 as a harbinger of Afghanistan's future. This year, American leaders began feeling comfortable referring to the end of 2014 as the conclusion of the 12-year-old war known as Operation Enduring Freedom. Yet debates raged over whether Afghanistan would be ready to secure itself.
Politics was rife in the region, as the Afghan equivalent of a parliament agreed to U.S. drawdown terms, and regional powers – particularly Pakistan – exerted increased influence over the war-weary American presence.
2013 was a year of wins and losses in Afghanistan. Take a look at some of the most notable outcomes and major events yet to-be-determined:
Nearing the End of Combat
President Barack Obama was elected in 2008 with a mandate for bringing America home from two protracted wars in the Middle East. Negotiations with Iraqi leadership collapsed in 2011, prompting Obama to ultimately withdraw all U.S. forces by the end of that year.
Obama first announced in 2011 that the U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan would be over by 2014, when America will have completed turning over all military responsibilities to Afghan forces. That rhetoric gained steam throughout 2012, but it was truly this year that America's policies locked in the details of withdrawing all combat forces by the end of next year.
The transition from a focus on combat to withdrawal on the horizon shifted the U.S. war footing in 2013. There were more than 68,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan at the beginning of this year. At the beginning of December, there were 60,000. That number is scheduled to drop to somewhere close to 30,000 by early 2014. American troops are expected to perform only an advise-and-support role during next summer's fighting season, a move considered a dress rehearsal of sorts for Afghanistan taking the lead in 2014.
The shift also resulted in a dramatic see-saw of casualties from U.S. forces to the Afghans as the locals began taking on increased responsibility. Coalition deaths peaked in 2010 at 711, according to icasualties.org, and dropped to 566 in 2011. By 2012, the number was down to 402, and there had been only 155 war-related deaths in Afghanistan as of December 2013.
Meanwhile, deaths among Afghan National Security Forces almost doubled from 2012 to 2013, according to RT.com. The Defense Department announced in November that the death rate among Afghans rose to above 100 per week during the peak of the summer fighting season for the first time ever.
The grand assembly known as the Loya Jirga serves as the closest institution to a western congress or parliament as could exist in the deeply tribal Afghan society. It is comprised of 2,500 elders that routinely meet to discuss and weigh in on pressing issues facing the nation.
A similar jirga in 2003 ratified the Afghan constitution.
U.S. officials offered wide praise (seeming almost surprised) for the assembly regarding its majority decision in November to accept a bilateral security agreement offered by Secretary of State John Kerry, which effectively outlines the U.S. presence in Afghanistan post-2014.
"I can't imagine a more compelling affirmation from the Afghan people themselves of their commitment to a long-term partnership with the United States and our international partners," Kerry said in a statement hours after the announcement of the assembly's decision.
"We very much welcome the conclusions of the Loya Jirga," U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan James Cunningham said. "Today's decision by the Jirga endorses Afghanistan's continued security cooperation with the United States and our international partners."
A Bilateral Security Agreement ... ?
There were still a few days left in December, at the time of this report, for Afghan President Hamid Karzai to sign off on the bilateral security agreement defining the U.S. and coalition presence in his native land beyond the withdrawal of combat troops by the end of 2014.