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Afghanistan: What have we achieved? What's next?

Erik De Castro / Reuters

A U.S. soldier from 127th Military Police, Task Force "Cacti" and a linguist walk along a road during a patrol in Khas Konar district in Kunar province, eastern Afghanistan on Oct. 6, 2011.

By Jim Maceda, NBC News Correspondent
We’ve paid so dearly for the war in Afghanistan, with more than 1,600 U.S. troops killed and thousands more wounded, that it’s hard to believe that the country is still on the brink. But, it’s worth remembering that 10 years ago, Taliban henchmen were executing “adulterers” and other “violators of Sharia law” by stoning or with a burst of AK-47 fire to the back in the packed stadiums of Kabul and Kandahar.

Sick women were denied care in Taliban-controlled hospitals and clinics; girls were kept hidden from view, forbidden an education, quietly taking their places behind the family chattel when walking in the streets. And, of course, Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida commanders had free reign back then – to plot their deadly attacks from their comfortable homes in Jalalabad, or train their new recruits in their camps along the border with Pakistan.
We know what happened. Ten years ago this week the U.S. launched an air and ground war against al-Qaida and the Taliban government that hosted and protected it.

 As forward observers often disguised as journalists or aid workers, agents of the CIA and U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency trained up and worked with the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, while directing U.S. bombings of Taliban targets. Within weeks, both al-Qaida and the Taliban fled to Pakistan.

Within months the U.S. focus had shifted to Iraq. And within three years, the Taliban had regrouped, reloaded and retaken its strongholds in the south and east of the country.

In a symbiotic merging of forces, al-Qaida, from Pakistan’s lawless tribal areas, provided the Taliban with money, logistics, and jihad credibility; the Taliban, meanwhile, gave al-Qaida plenty of young foot soldiers, and a battlefield for its foreign fighters.

Today the Taliban has been largely driven from and defeated in those former strongholds by U.S. military “surges” in 2009 (Helmand) and 2010 (Kandahar) – critical Taliban staging areas cleared and still held by mostly U.S. and British troops.

Ghost towns have sprung back to life. Schools and clinics have reopened. Roads are full of Afghan farmers moving their produce market. But in provinces and districts beyond those security bubbles, especially in the north and west of the country, the Taliban is present, and probing. Afghan government and security officials are killed or kidnapped almost daily. In the capital of Kabul, the Taliban seems to be able to strike at will.

Kamran Jebreili / AP

Afghan boys play with a ball on top of the remains of a Russian armored vehicle in Kabul on Oct. 6, 2011.

We’ll be here for a ‘long time’
We can’t know what happens next. Is Afghanistan headed, again, toward chaos? Or will it maintain some kind of representative government and contain the insurgents?

That really depends on what U.S. forces do after 2014. And let’s be clear, as top U.S. commander in Afghanistan Lt. Gen. James Allen said just this week, despite all the political and economic pressures to the contrary, U.S. troops will be in Afghanistan for “a long time.”

U.S. war planners in Kabul tell me they’ll pull out part of the surge forces – some 10,000 troops, or two brigade combat teams – by the end of December. And the remaining 23,000 surge troops will return home by September 2012 – just two months before the next U.S. presidential election.

But both countries are already negotiating the details of a Status of Forces Agreement – or SOFA – to take effect after 2014. U.S. military sources in Afghanistan say that the SOFA will be similar to the one signed by the U.S. and Iraq in 2008, meaning tens of thousands of U.S. troops will remain in country, but in a low profile, non-combat role, mostly for training and logistics and to deter the Taliban from attempting to overthrow the Afghan government.

It’s unclear how long Allen’s “long time” commitment is, but it’s certainly years, not months. During which time U.S. drone strikes inside Pakistan’s tribal belt would likely reach record numbers and the Afghan National Security Forces would benefit from U.S. know-how in long-term warfare and maintaining an air force and surveillance assets. Ideally, the U.S. would bottle up al-Qaida from the air while Afghan forces would contain the Taliban on the ground. At least, that’s the plan.

But that’s also a best-case scenario, and so much could go wrong.

Mohammad Ismail / Reuters

A school girl uses a mobile phone to take pictures of artifacts on display at Kabul National Museum September 25, 2011. Click on the photo to see a complete slideshow of Afghanistan: Nation at a Crossroads.

Worst case scenario
I’ve watched Afghan forces progress exponentially since 2002, when conscripts for the “new” Afghan National Army were given muskets and taught their right foot from their left. But fighting for their own destiny – will they wilt and run?

The words of a U.S. Army officer in charge of training Afghan soldiers in Kandahar – only two miles from the hometown of Taliban leader Mullah Omar – still give me pause. “I’d rather train the Taliban,” he told me one July night last year. “Seriously, compared to these guys, the Taliban make better fighters; they’re more disciplined and much more honest.” 

Another worry – the ethnic Pashtuns, including most Taliban fighters, have shown no interest in joining the Afghan Army. What if they succeed in their ancient dream of creating a borderless “Pashtunstan,” disregarding the Durand Line separating Afghanistan from Pakistan and incorporating their “Pakhtun” brothers to the east?

What would the U.S. do if its “non-combat” troops suddenly found themselves in the crosshairs of another Afghan civil war? Would it cut and run, like the Russians in 1989? Possibly. Would it have the stomach to call back in the cavalry, and try to reimpose military order? Not likely. Could it make an impact with drone strikes and bombings of Afghan cities, along the new front lines? Even less likely.

No, in this worse-case scenario, after all the U.S. has paid in blood and treasure, it might well find itself, by 2015, looking on helplessly as the Afghanistan that was to be its bulwark of democracy in South Asia turns the clock back a generation – to a time of brutal warlords, tribal feuds, drug wars and massive numbers of refugees.

An ideal time for international jihadists, al-Qaida leaders and affiliates of all stripes, and even Mullah Omar himself, to return to Afghanistan and reclaim the terror camps and homes they’d abandoned years before.

As is so often the case in Afghanistan, whether it’s success, stalemate or surrender – the endgame is anyone’s guess.

Jim Maceda is an NBC News correspondent based in London who has covered the wars in Afghanistan since the 1980’s.

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