President Barack Obama’s recent statement of his Afghanistan policy has again revealed the intractable situation the United States has faced since it led the invasion of that country in 2001. In his State of the Union address to Congress on January 28, Mr. Obama said the mission there would be completed by the end of the year, and that thereafter the U.S. and its allies would support a “unified Afghanistan” as it took responsibility for itself. With the agreement of the Afghan government, a “small force” could remain to train and assist Afghan forces and carry out counterterrorism operations against any al-Qaeda remnants. Washington has withdrawn 60,000 of its troops from Afghanistan since Mr. Obama took office in 2009, but 36,500 remain, with 19,000 from other countries in the NATO-ISAF coalition. Western plans are for a residual force of 8,000 to 12,000, two-thirds of them American, but sections of the U.S. military have suggested a U.S. strength of 10,000, with 5,000 from the rest of the coalition. Mr. Obama is discussing the options with senior officers.

The President wants to avoid a repeat of Iraq, which with the exception of Kurdistan has become a battleground between Sunni and Shia leaders, claiming over 7,000 lives in 2013 alone. But over Afghanistan he is caught in a cleft stick. Afghan President Hamid Karzai is yet to sign the deal for NATO-ISAF troops to stay; he would prefer his successor to sign the agreement after he leaves office in April 2014, but the successor will not take office until September. Secondly, Mr. Karzai has infuriated Washington by planning to release 37 Taliban detainees, by blaming American forces for terrorist attacks on civilians, and by calling the U.S. a “colonial power.” Yet the Afghan National Security Forces, which include the police, number 334,000, or about 20,000 below the numbers envisaged for them, and the U.S. Department of Defense has reported to Congress that the ANSF cannot operate on their own. The U.S. public have little wish to continue the war, but the military may have its own agenda. The September 2013 quarterly report by the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction shows that of nearly $100 billion in reconstruction aid, $97 billion went towards counter-narcotics, security, and other operations; only $3 billion was used for humanitarian aid. If the President feels hemmed in, it is because of the toxic legacy of his predecessor George W. Bush who went into the country in search of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda. At the end of 12 years of American occupation, Afghanistan has not emerged as a more secure place; nor has the U.S. had much of a success in nation-building.

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