Afghanistan's war planners trying to picture their country without U.S. troops next year might want to cast an eye toward Iraq.
Since the U.S. pullout two years ago, a defeated al Qaeda in Iraq has reassembled, brought in fresh fighters, freed prisoners and unleashed waves of deadly car bombings. Last week, al Qaeda claimed control of Fallujah, the town in western Anbar province where scores of Americans lost their lives in house-to-house fighting in 2004.
The same situation could befall Afghanistan, as the Taliban, the Haqqani Network and al Qaeda wait patiently in Pakistan. Afghan President Hamid Karzai has refused to sign an agreement that would keep U.S. counterterrorism forces in his country after the end of the year. Washington says it needs a go-ahead soon because the rotation of combat units must be planned well in advance.
"The blueprint is clear," said former intelligence operative Wayne Simmons. "The only difference is that Afghanistan, with the exception of Kabul, has no infrastructure so it will fall faster and result in more personal pain and suffering. Once again, our blood and treasure."
"The central government is bound to crack under pressure from al Qaeda," said James Carafano, an analyst at the Heritage Foundation. "The best-case scenario is the country fragments into protracted civil war with sides supported by U.S., India, Pakistan and Iran. Al Qaeda will be back because [the] Haqqani Network will sponsor them."
Based in Pakistan, the Haqqani Network is part criminal enterprise and part terrorist group that seeks to control sections of Afghanistan. It is linked to al Qaeda and has carried out deadly attacks against U.S. forces.
But it is the Afghan Taliban, which the U.S. ousted in 2001, that would capitalize the most on an American pullout. The Islamic movement regularly reconstitutes forces across the border in Pakistan, and would focus almost immediately on taking back villages in the south around Kandahar, the Taliban's spiritual birthplace.
"The Taliban are an Afghan nationalist movement that seeks to control the politics of the state," said James Russell, an instructor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif. "Al Qaeda in Iraq are a bunch of jihadist terrorist nihilists that don't command any kind of widespread allegiance in the country. I'd say the Taliban has a higher chance at resuming political power in Afghanistan than al Qaeda has in Iraq."
Analysts assume that the Taliban and their al Qaeda allies have watched events unfold in Iraq since December 2011, when highly trained and experienced U.S. commando units handed off their jobs to Iraqis. The decline in counterterrorism know-how was pronounced.
Without the intense pressure of U.S. surveillance and commando raids, al Qaeda in Iraq has been able to rebuild cells and set up backroom shops to turn cars into large explosives. With Iraqi security forces unable to penetrate the cells and find the chop shops, lethal attacks have come in coordinated waves.
"Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) has reconstituted as a professional military force capable of planning, training and resourcing and executing synchronized and complex attacks in Iraq," said a report by the Institute for the Study of War.
Analyst Jessica D. Lewis wrote that al Qaeda is unleashing vehicle-borne bombs, mortars, suicide bombers and small-arms fire in attacks in what has become known as the "breaking the walls" campaign.
This same enemy reconstitution could happen in Afghanistan.
"To abandon Afghanistan as we did in Iraq definitely encourages and invites the Taliban to reassert themselves in the south, where they have been largely defeated, and to enable the Taliban to shift the momentum in the east to their favor, where they are very much still entrenched," said retired Army Gen. John Keane, an architect of the 2007 U.S. troop surge that reduced violence in Iraq. "The Afghans want a strategic partnership with the U.S. to include a long-term military relationship."
Mr. Russell, who has toured Afghanistan and written about the battles to remove the Taliban in the south, said a U.S. exit also would mean a loss of dollars.
"Nobody could credibly argue that the Karzai government has created any sense of allegiance throughout the country," he said. "It is a corrupt, crony dictatorship. The inflow of Western money has stitched together a variety of different patron networks that has helped hold the place together, but once that source of money dries up, the real battle for political power and authority will resume."
The U.S. has about 35,000 troops in Afghanistan, down from a surge peak of 100,000 in 2011. Commanders would like to keep about 14,000 troops after this year, primarily to train and accompany Afghans on counterterrorism raids.
Without Americans, the Afghans would lose not only American might but also American know-how. The U.S. has established intricate intelligence networks to identify Taliban fighters and bomb-making sites. Those assets would leave along with U.S. troops.
The State Department said Friday that it is nearing the point at which the Pentagon will begin planning a full pullout absent a bilateral security agreement.
"If we cannot conclude a BSA promptly, then we will initiate planning for a post-2014 future in which there would be no U.S. or NATO troop presence in Afghanistan," said spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki. "We recognize that at this time it is up to President Karzai to determine what is in Afghanistan's best interest."
If the U.S. leaves, Mr. Carafano said, "This will be an important psychological victory for an Islamist movement who will claim they defeated the U.S. like the Soviet empire. The West is a paper tiger like bin Laden said and it's only a matter of time."
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