KABUL, Afghanistan | The war in Afghanistan enters its 10th year Thursday with key players hedging their bets, uncertain whether the Obama administration is prepared to stay for the long haul, move quickly to exit an increasingly unpopular conflict, or do something in between.
Fearing that his Western allies may in the end abandon him, Afghan President Hamid Karzai has started to prepare his nation for a withdrawal of international forces by shoring up relations with neighboring Pakistan and reaching out to insurgents interested in reconciliation.
There have been other important junctures, but this ninth anniversary is proving decisive. It’s go-for-broke time in Afghanistan.
Patience is running out here as well. Afghans are tired of the violence and increasingly resentful of foreign forces. Many wonder why their quality of life has not markedly improved when their nation has been awash in billions of dollars of foreign aid.
“NATO is here, and they say they are fighting terrorism, and this is the 10th year, and there is no result yet,” Mr. Karzai said in an emotional speech last week. “Our sons cannot go to school because of bombs and suicide attacks.”
All this is very different from the near-universal international support the George W. Bush administration enjoyed when it launched attacks on Oct. 7, 2001. The war was aimed at toppling the Taliban from power because they harbored Osama bin Laden and other al Qaeda leaders responsible for the terrorist strikes on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon of less than a month earlier.
The hard-line Islamic regime, which repressed women, banned music and held public executions for disloyal actions, collapsed within two months.
But the effort was underfunded from the start. When the Bush administration’s attention shifted to Iraq in 2003, the Taliban began to regroup. After several years of relative calm and safety, the situation in Afghanistan began to deteriorate around 2006. The Taliban have steadily gained strength since then. And bin Laden remains alive.
President Obama ramped up the war this year, sending tens of thousands more troops. Casualties are running at their highest levels since 2001, when the Taliban were overthrown without a single American combat death. The U.S. death toll in July was 66, setting a monthly record; to date, about 2,000 NATO troops have died in the conflict, including more than 1,220 American servicemen and -women.
There’s plenty of frustration at the White House and in the U.S. Congress, too. In August, when Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, visited Kabul, he bluntly stated that if the Karzai government didn’t clean up corruption, it was going to be hard “to look American families in the eye and say, ‘Hey that’s something worth dying for.’”
On the battlefield, NATO’s top commander, U.S. Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, is banking on his plan to protect heavily populated areas, rout the Taliban from their strongholds and rush in better governance and development aid to win the Afghans’ loyalty away from the Taliban.
In February, NATO launched an offensive in Helmand province, the largest military operation in Afghanistan since the 2001 invasion. Nearly eight months after U.S. forces mounted a high-profile assault that ended Taliban control of the rural town of Marjah, U.S. Marines there are still clearing it. There are signs that governance is improving, though troops still face daily gun battles and an entrenched insurgency that shows no signs of easing soon.