It wasn't long ago that Afghanistan was the forgotten war. But as U.S. troop deaths there dramatically overtook casualties in Iraq in 2008, the Pentagon has turned its attention to what senior military officials now like to call the longest campaign of the long war.
And it's not going to be easy to win. One top military adviser said recently that he was always convinced America could win in Iraq—but in Afghanistan, he's not so sure. The Taliban has made a heartbreaking comeback in much of the country. And Afghan President Hamid Karzai is steadily losing the confidence of his people and of much of the senior administration here as well.
On his watch, Karzai has been unable to banish corruption—a scourge that many Afghans view as their chief burden to bear in an unstable and increasingly violent country.
In the face of a weak central government, the Taliban has stepped in, creating shadow governments in remote and not-so-remote provinces. The Taliban moves in and doles out its unique form of brutal but bribery-free justice—and Afghan locals have been begging for some system of justice for more than half a decade now. The Taliban is also bulking up in provinces that border Kabul, where insurgents have threatened to "draw a noose" around the Afghan capital.
U.S. military leaders in Afghanistan stress that the Taliban has no chance of retaking or holding any part of the country where there are U.S. troops. But there are none to speak of in many parts of the country, including the embattled southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar.
To remedy this, more U.S. troops are on the way, to the tune of at least 20,000 more by summer. And there could be even more, which would very likely double U.S. force strength throughout the country.
Reinforcements will first go to the provinces of Wardak and Logar, which border the capital, where they will be charged with fighting to retake the "ring road," the vital stretch of highway that connects Kabul to the key southern city of Kandahar. In 2008, the road saw a dramatic increase in roadside bombs, kidnappings, and brutal violence that included the beheading of truck drivers moving vital supplies, such as food and fuel, throughout the country.
U.S. troops will also be sent to the south, where the insurgency is reasserting itself with a great deal of success. U.S. marines fought hard for more than eight months there last year, but when they left, there were no troops to replace them. Military leaders are well aware that the military has no chance of winning hearts, minds, or territory if it cannot hold the areas it clears of insurgent forces.
But the Pentagon has also been quite vocal in pointing out that these troops will not be enough to win the war. The Department of Defense has repeatedly lobbied for a greater State Department role in rebuilding Afghanistan. On a recent trip to the region, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates publicly rebuked the United Nations, saying that the U.N. special envoy in Afghanistan had not been given the resources, "both people and money, that he needs to do his job." He also noted that NATO has left Afghanistan to "bear a disproportionate part of this burden" of war. "NATO is a military alliance. It's not a talk shop," he said.
But privately, U.S. military officials don't expect NATO partners to do much more fighting than they are doing now. Officials would like to see them get more involved in training Afghan national army and police units, however. Until such units are trained and can operate independently, U.S. forces cannot leave. But Gen. David McKiernan, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, estimates—conservatively, many analysts add—that it will be at least three to four years before this is possible.
This means that Afghanistan could occupy Barack Obama for the duration of his presidency. "This is a long fight, and I think we're in it until we are successful along with the Afghan people," Gates said on his recent visit to the region. "I do believe there will be a requirement for a sustained commitment here for a protracted period of time. How many years that is, and how many troops that is, I think nobody knows at this point."