A Black Hawk flies over the city, during Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron visit, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Oct. 3, 2014.

A Black Hawk flies over the city, during Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron visit, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Oct. 3, 2014. Dan Kitwood/AP

Will Afghanistan Become the ‘Forgotten War’ Again?

As the U.S. military draws down in Afghanistan after 13 years of war, history shows it can’t take anything for granted. By Stephanie Gaskell

On Oct. 7, 2001, nearly a month after the Sept. 11 attacks, the State Department sent a cable to Pakistan asking Islamabad to pass a message to the Taliban warning that “it is in your interest and in the interest of your survival to hand over all al-Qaeda leaders." The message also included a warning to Taliban leader Mullah Omar that “every pillar of the Taliban regime will be destroyed.” 

Thirteen years later, Omar is alive and kicking despite a $10 million bounty on his head, the Taliban is still targeting U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Pakistan continues to be part of the problem—and the solution.

The U.S. military operation began that same day. And after nearly $800 billion, and more than 2,300 American lives, the war in Afghanistan will officially come to an end this year. But the mission is far from over. Whatever military ambitions that defined the war's original name, "Operation Enduring Freedom," have now been reduced to a far less ambitious—and more lasting—approach with the mission's new name: "Operation Resolute Support." 

Another fighting season is coming to an end, but U.S. troops have largely been out of the fight for some time now. There have been 47 American casualties this year, compared to 499 in 2010, at the height of the war. Still, Gen. John Campbell, the former Army vice chief who took over as the top U.S. and NATO commander six weeks ago, said the fight isn’t over, noting that two U.S. soldiers and a Polish soldier were killed this month, and another U.S. soldier was lost last week. He also pointed out that Afghan forces are still struggling with aviation, logistics and intelligence issues. "This continues to be a very tough environment for our soldiers, for all of NATO and for the Afghan security forces,” he said during a briefing with reporters at the Pentagon. As the U.S. death toll drops, it's clear Afghan security forces have begun to bear the brunt of the fight, with as many as 9,000 injuries and fatalities this year alone.

Now that newly elected Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has signed the bilateral security agreement (BSA) that allows U.S. troops to stay past the end of the war, Campbell has begun the transition from 13 years of combat to a post-war “train, advise and assist” mission.

'Transition, Transition, Transition'

There are currently just under 40,000 International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) troops in Afghanistan, including approximately 23,000 U.S. forces. That number will drop to about 12,500 NATO forces—of which 9,800 will be American—by the end of the year, according to a timeline set out by President Barack Obama in May. By the end of 2015, that number will be cut again, by about half, and by Jan. 1, 2017, all U.S. troops will be out of Afghanistan except for a small number assigned to the U.S. embassy in Kabul.  

Despite a protracted political process that delayed the seating of the new Afghan president and put a security agreement between the U.S. and Afghanistan in limbo for months, Campbell said the drawdown is on track so far. At the height of the war, ISAF had about 300 combat outposts and forward operating bases. There are now just 30.

“If I had one word to tell you what I've seen so far in the six weeks, it's transition, transition, transition. And that is transition from ISAF to the mission of resolute support. It's the political transition with a new president, the BSA signing, the SOFA [Status of Forces Agreement] signing, and this really complete political transition,” Campbell said.

(Read More: Gen. Campbell Will Recommend a Slower Drawdown in Afghanistan, If Needed)

Still, the Taliban aren’t exactly packing up and going home and many say they’re just waiting out the clock for the day when all foreign troops leave Afghanistan.

The problem we’ve had in the past is we’ve encouraged the Afghans to go ahead and report this to show the success that they have. And quite candidly, they’ve been afraid to do that. 
Gen. John Campbell, ISAF Commander

“For all of the political rhetoric that has followed, however, Afghanistan is still the forgotten war at a time when the Taliban is making steady gains, civilian casualties are rising, the Afghan economy is in crisis, and there still are no clear plans for any post-2014 aspect of transition,” Anthony Cordesman, a national security expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said in a recent report about U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia.

Campbell said that in ”the last couple of weeks, there has been an uptick with the Taliban trying to make a statement as they close out the fighting season.” He said the Afghans have been fighting well, especially in Helmand province, but that the Taliban is unable to hold any territory they gain. He admits, though, that they’re not doing enough to counter the Taliban’s message.

“They have, quite frankly, won the information war,” he said.  

Afghan security forces have been loathe to counter with their own public relations strategy, Campbell noted, in part because of the political problems in Kabul and a lack of confidence. But he said he expects Ghani, and the Afghan National Security Forces, will be more inclined to demonstrate their successes more publicly.

“The problem we've had in the past is we've encouraged the Afghans to go ahead and report this to show the success that they have. And quite candidly, they've been afraid to do that. And they've been inhibited in some places toto tell some of the good news stories," Campbell said

As those forces step up on the battlefield and in that information war, Taliban morale will fall apart. “What you'll see in Helmand is that the Taliban do not own any of the ground that they've tried to get, and that they'll end the fighting season '14 here very discouraged, and that their leadership continues not even to be in Afghanistan and that the morale of the Taliban continues to be low," Campbell said.

Lessons Learned

Just days after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, then-Secretary of State Gen. Colin Powell told Tim Russert on NBC’s Meet the Press that the United States would not get mired in Afghanistan’s so-called graveyard of empires. “I can assure you that our military will have plans that will go against their weaknesses, and not get trapped in ways that previous armies have gotten trapped in Afghanistan,” he said.

The United States has been fighting in Afghanistan longer than the Soviets did after they invaded in 1979. That war lasted a decade before the Soviet Union was defeated, leading to the civil war that brought about the rise of the Taliban.

And while the Obama administration may designate the end of 2014 as the end of the war in Afghanistan, it’s somewhat arbitrary, since the U.S. mission will likely continue to 2017, at the least. With the lessons of the end of the Iraq war being played out in the Middle East, the next president may decide that the U.S. military mission should continue—or even expand—to prevent Afghanistan's security from falling in the same way as it has in Iraq. Indeed, there have been many comparisons to the current mess in Iraq and the inability to get a deal to leave troops behind there, something that’s clearly on Campbell’s mind.

(Related: Afghanistan's Reconstruction Future Looks Very Bleak, IG Warns)

Campbell, who led troops in Iraq in 2005, said he supports the timeline of the drawdown, but said if conditions on the ground worsen, he wouldn’t hesitate to urge the president to slow it down.

“I feel very confident that we have a good plan, but as any commander on the ground, you know, I reserve the right to be able to take a look at the risk to the force, risk to the mission, and then provide my assessments to my chain of command as we move forward,” Campbell said. 

We are witnessing now in Iraq what happens when the U.S. falters on that commitment and adopts a posture inconsistent with our security interests.
Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., ​House Armed Services Committee Chairman 

Earlier this month, Ret. Gen. John Allen, who commanded U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, questioned the speed of the drawdown. “I think [that timeline is] too short,” Allen said. “These young Afghan troops, the whole concept of an Afghan army is new. And they need time to transition properly,” Allen told the Marine Corps Times.

A New Chapter Begins

As Secretary of State John Kerry said when the BSA was signed last week: “This is a beginning, not an ending, and with all beginnings the toughest decisions are still ahead.”

Kerry said Afghanistan is entering a “new chapter in its history” and vowed not to abandon the nation as it continues to grow its security forces and its economy. The Afghan government has said it is “nearly broke” and needs $537 million to keep operating. Even if it gets through this latest financial crisis, the government will need international funding for years, if not decades, to come. Afghanistan has an annual operating budget of $7.6 billion—and more than two-thirds of that comes from foreign aid.

But many fear that as crises like those in Iraq and Syria dominate the White House's foreign policy agenda, Obama and his national security team will lose sight of Afghanistan.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., warned the Obama administration not to take its eye off the ball there. “Only U.S. leadership and commitment, along with that of our allies, can give the Afghan people the time to allow their institutions to mature to the point that gains can be sustained and our national security interests assured,” he said in a statement last week. “The administration should reconsider its plans to drawdown U.S. forces, leaving just a normal embassy presence within a year and a half. We are witnessing now in Iraq what happens when the U.S. falters on that commitment and adopts a posture inconsistent with our security interests.”

CORRECTION: This article has been corrected to reflect that Colin Powell was Secretary of State in 2001, not Joint Chiefs Chairman.