The United States is facing a presidential-election campaign in which domestic considerations will be uppermost but where foreign-policy challenges, not least the continuing conflict in Afghanistan, will be an important factor in the evolving debates.
Barack Obama's policy towards Afghanistan during his first term has given him a degree of political leeway. His major decision, the troop "surge", was designed as part of a strategy to establish a position of strength vis-à-vis the Taliban and other armed opposition groups which would allow the US to negotiate an acceptable withdrawal. But the president and his advisors also sought to secure more general progress of a kind that would help limit Taliban influence.
An earlier column in this series pointed to two possible outcomes here:
"If more foreign troops are seen as capable of delivering permanent peace and security backed up by a non-corrupt and transparent government acting in the interests of the people, then they would have a strong chance of fulfilling key political goals. But if the Taliban maintain their position, the Kabul government remains corrupt, and US troops are viewed as ineffective occupiers with no lasting commitment to the country, there is little incentive among Afghans to back the international forces. In these circumstances, the military-political strategy behind the whole 'surge' concept fails" (see "Afghanistan, the regional complex", 6 October 2011).
The actual outcome, four months later, lies somewhere in between; but it is the second trend that seems closer to reality. There are also clear signs that the Obama administration is at last recognising its military and political predicament in Afghanistan, and - ever aware of the potential impact of the conflict on the re-election campaign - is adjusting accordingly.
A bad-enough option
In the domestic arena, two factors are currently helping Obama. The first is specific to the campaign, namely that the triple success on 7 February of the Republicans' candidate Rick Santorum (after earlier gains by front-runner Mitt Romney and then Newt Gingrich) make the party's rivalries even more entangled and harder to establish a single focus on its common adversary. The second is that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have become increasing unpopular during Obama's presidency, thus creating space for a faster military disengagement.
American combat-troops have effectively left Iraq, with some contingents remaining in a less clear "advisory" role. It is striking in this respect that a decision to halve the personnel at the huge United States embassy in Baghdad has occasioned so little criticism at home. This is also another signal of how far Washington's influence in Iraq has plummeted in recent months, a pattern precisely opposite to the long-term political role it had expected. The trend represents the final collapse of the ambitious reordering projected by the George W Bush administration in 2003.
The change on the ground in Afghanistan is not yet as dramatic, though it looks set to become so. The war itself continues, with every sign that Taliban and other armed opposition groups (AOGs) are as entrenched as ever and largely unaffected by the troop surge; this is confirmed by damaging leaks of confidential Nato assessments based on numerous interrogations of Taliban and AOG suspects.
An aspect of this reality that the internal reports verify (which has often been referred to in this series of columns) is that Taliban militias tend to respond to the entry of US troops move into an area by going to ground and biding their time, then - once the troops "hand over" to local Afghan forces and withdraw - re-emerging to restore their influence.
A separate assessment of the war by an experienced US army colonel is deeply critical of overly optimistic forecasts of impending success (see Scott Shane, "In Afghan War, Officer Becomes a Whistle-Blower", New York Times¸ 6 February 2012). In other circumstances, Lieutenant-Colonel Daniel L Davis would have been the target of intense opprobrium, suggesting that in the Pentagon's muted reaction to his analysis is a quiet recognition of its accuracy.
It is true that US military sources still argue that the Afghan national army and police will be able to take over control of security by late 2014 (see "Afghan Forces Will Be 'Good Enough' to Take Over: U.S.", Defense News, 9 February 2012). Few independent analysts accept this, however.
A three-point plan
The Obama administration's response to these military developments involves, at root, an acceptance that the aim of negotiating from a position of strength has failed. In its place, a three-point strategy has emerged.
The first is to intensify efforts to engage the Taliban, both at the local level in some parts of Afghanistan and more generally and formally - including in talks mediated by Qatar. The result of such processes is not clear, but they do imply acceptance that the links between the Taliban and a weakened al-Qaida are now regarded as of little consequence.
The second is to end the surge and hasten the rate of withdrawal, whatever the situation on the ground. US force levels peaked at 100,000 in 2011, out of a Nato total of 140,000. Of these, 10,000 American troops have already left, another 22,000 will be withdrawn by the end of the summer, and there will be much more substantial decreases by late 2013 (a year earlier than originally planned). The French are to remove all their 3,600 combat troops by 2013, and the British will scale down their far larger force in 2013 rather than 2014.
The effect of these decisions, in the context of the situation across Afghanistan, is impossible to predict. Even an optimistic prognosis from Washington's point of view would might anticipate a rapid move to a decentralised form of governance, with Taliban elements having considerable power in the Pashtun areas in the south and southeast of the country, backed by Pakistan. That would be a very uncomfortable result for Washington after more than a decade of war; as in Iraq, it would also represent an almost complete reversal of the ambitions outlined in 2001-02. Nonetheless, it is a result which Obama will allow, and even a Republican successor may be forced to accept.
The third point in the strategy enters here, however. This is the plan to maintain a sizeable US military presence in Afghanistan, but with a strong emphasis on thousands of special forces and the use of remote warfare-utilising drones. The Pentagon sees these tools as making possible a continued influence in the country to an extent that has proved impossible in Iraq. They would also provide a buffer for Obama to use against Republican claims of defeatism as the election campaign intensifies (see Thom Shanker & Eric Schmitt, "U.S. Plans Shift to Elite Units as It Winds Down in Afghanistan", New York Times, 5 February 2012).
The many controversies over the use of special forces and drones, including as a result of the deaths of innocents, make the projection of extended US influence in Afghanistan at least questionable. Indeed, United Nations findings that civilian deaths year-on-year, resulting from insurgent attacks as well as foreign forces, are increasing (see Alissa J Rubin, "A Grim Record in Afghanistan", New York Times, 6 February 2012).
Much here may depend on the outcome of the presidential election in November 2012. If Obama gets back in, it is actually likely that the US military involvement in Afghanistan will become minimal within two years - with even the dual (special forces plus drone) approach cut right back. If Romney or another Republican takes the White House, then the momentum could be very different - towards a substantial US involvement in south Asia for some years to come, with all the "back to the future" implications that this would entail.
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