Barack Obama's state-of-the-union address on 12 February 2013 was notable for its concentration on domestic issues, reflecting his statement in his inauguration speech that "(a) decade of war is now ending." But in his brief references to the world beyond the United States, he did win applause by declaring that the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan would be accelerated. A look at the context of military developments surrounding Afghanistan, may, however, suggest that the trends there are more complicated than the president's promise allows.
The "surge" policy implemented in 2009-10, during Obama's first term, increased the number of American personnel to a peak of around 100,000 personnel, with an additional 40,000 from other International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) countries. The surge was intended to overwhelm the Taliban and other armed opposition groups (AOGs) to an extent that the western forces could then negotiate a withdrawal, leaving an opposition so weakened that it could not seize power from the Afghan authorities left in place. This "clever" tactic failed, leading the Obama administration to shift positions and just set a timetable for withdrawal.
Thus, by the end of 2012 the US contingent had fallen to 66,000; now, Obama has confirmed that 34,000 more will leave by early 2014. The British, the second biggest, peaked at 9,500 in 2012 but is now being reduced at a similar rate. Several other Isaf countries have already withdrawn their troops completely. In broad terms, between late 2010 and spring 2013 the foreign troop-levels will have shrunk by almost half.
This implies that at the start of the so-called "fighting season" - in late spring, and especially after the opium-poppy harvest - many of the remaining troops will be deployed on the massive task of demolishing camps, preparing many tens of thousands of tonnes of equipment for transport, and then organising the latter's movement out of Afghanistan (via either central Asian states or Pakistan). They will also be involved in the complex inventory of matériel now redundant for their own purposes but potentially valuable either to the Afghan national army (ANA) and police or the Taliban. It will be a delicate task to decide to trust it to the former, to remove it, or to destroy it.
In turn this means that the forces available for regular combat-patrols will be minimal and the smaller and more vulnerable "forward operating bases" (the great majority of the whole) will simply be vacated - indeed, many have already been abandoned. The official line is that the ANA and police are successfully taking over security operations; indeed, some senior US military sources are confidently declaring victory. This charade may be aided to the extent the Taliban and other AOGs choose to avoid any actions likely to lead to open combat. After all, why face western firepower and unnecessary casualties when the foreigners will mostly be gone in two years?
The propaganda coming from Isaf makes an objective assessment of the security situation difficult to make, though it is certainly the case that there have been considerable improvements in much of northern and northwestern Afghanistan. In the south and southeast, though, the Taliban and other AOGs wield considerable influence away from the main towns. Without foreign troops and their equipment, the Afghan forces will be greatly exposed; without helicopter-borne casualty evacuation, for example, Afghan personnel wounded in combat will have to be moved to hospital by road. The absence of close air-support for patrols, probably the Isaf asset most effective against the Taliban, will be even more problematic.
The corollary is that, as ground-patrols diminish but as long as Isaf airpower remains available, western forces will rely on a now familiar pattern: air operations, including drone strikes, and special forces in (hugely unpopular) night raids. A few hours after Obama's address on 11 February, an Isaf air-strike in Kunar province was reported to have killed ten civilians, mostly women and children.
Indeed, there has been a huge increase in the use of armed-drones in Afghanistan since Obama came to power in 2009, coinciding mainly with the surge but expanding since then. There has been much controversy over their in Pakistan but in fact their incidence in Afghanistan has been both greater and little-noticed. In 2009, there were 255 drone-attacks; in the first ten months of 2012, there were 333. In Pakistan, there have been 338 armed-drone strikes in the last eight years.
Even more surprising is that Britain, with its much smaller fleet of Reaper drones, has undertaken more armed-drone attacks in Afghanistan (a total of 363) than all the US strikes in Pakistan. The combined total of US and UK armed-drone strikes in Afghanistan to the end of October 2012 comes to 1,523.
The fact that these strikes are being inflicted within Afghanistan rather than in a sovereign state such as Pakistan where no mandate for foreign forces to operate exists, there is virtually no publicity about them; nor is much known outside Afghanistan about civilian casualties. What is clear, though, is that armed-drones are steadily replacing conventional strike aircraft in American and British military operations.
This bears directly on what will happen in 2014 and beyond. In President Obama's view, the US wants to keep around 9,000 personnel in Afghanistan after the large-scale withdrawal in 2014, charged with two functions: “training and equipping Afghan forces so that the country does not again slip into chaos, and counter-terrorism efforts that allow us to pursue the remnants of al-Qaida and their affiliates.”
The means to “do” counter-terrorism will revolve mainly around drones and special-force operations: in effect an ongoing low-intensity war with very few US casualties. Those waging it expect to have the support of the Afghan government, and to act with minimal publicity.
These developments coincide with an expansion of drone-strikes from the CIA's new base in Saudi Arabia and plans for a new drone-base in Niger. The overall pattern is a move from “boots on the ground” to war by “remote control”. Afghanistan, however, is already the experimental proving-ground for worldwide remote control - and the role will deepen even further as American and other forces depart. It is grimly ironic that the long-sought and now much-publicised ending of the Afghan war by the end of 2014 is in reality part of a transition to a model for future war.