In early December, U.S. ambassador Karl Eikenberry attended a shura in the Zhari district of Afghanistan's Kandahar province for the first time. "I've been to all 34 of Afghanistan's provinces, but I've never been here before, because the Taliban prevented it," he told the local elders. "A year ago, I would never have believed we could have this meeting, so I congratulate you on your courage."
Zhari district is in the heart of the Taliban homeland, an area so dangerous that the district governor's office, where we were meeting, is located within the local U.S. military base, Forward Operating Base Wilson. This was one of the first shura meetings there, since many of the elders had been too intimidated (or committed to the Taliban) to gather publicly before. But NATO coalition troops had successfully cleared the area over the past three months; significant weapons caches and bombmaking factories had been found. The fighting had been fierce at times, extended firefights of a sort that was rare in this hit-and-run war. Now the action had moved west, as the Taliban were pushed from their ancestral home. There were still violent incidents roadside bombs, suicide attacks, an occasional sniper but the area was safe enough for markets to begin reopening, and hundreds of Afghan civilians were now willing to work for $5 a day on local development projects. In the past, they had been too frightened of Taliban retribution to work for the Americans.
I had first visited the district in April, embedding with U.S. troops in the nearby town of Senjaray, and the progress was remarkable. The Afghan National Army (ANA) had arrived in force and was conducting joint patrols with the U.S. Forces although most of the ANA troops were non-Pashtun, from the north and west, and needed interpreters to communicate with the townspeople just as the Americans did. Still, I walked several patrols with the joint forces, and we were able to enter areas that had been off-limits to U.S. troops in April.
And now, in the district governor's office, I was witnessing the first stirrings of local governance which mostly consisted of the elders' demanding assistance from the U.S. government. Some of the demands were reasonable: the elders wanted reparations for the damage done to local homesteads in the fighting. They also wanted major improvements to the local irrigation system, which channels water from the Arghandab River into the rest of the valley, a particularly fecund agricultural area. Those projects were already under way.
But the elders, especially several large absentee landholders from Kandahar city, were looking for more: paved roads, electricity, cold-storage facilities for their crops. Eikenberry listened patiently to the requests and promised to do what he could. Earlier, at Kandahar airport, he had listened to demands for elaborate improvements to the civilian aviation facilities there. The ambassador listens to hundreds of similar requests throughout the country every day, which raises several crucial questions: After 10 years of fighting a war that now costs the U.S. upwards of $100 billion $1 million per soldier per year, where do we draw the line? Once we've cleared the Taliban from an area, what remaining responsibilities do we have and what should the Afghans be doing for themselves? Do we really need to provide cold-storage facilities to the world's fourth poorest country? Given the sour U.S. economy and budget deficits, what to do about Afghanistan looms as a major domestic policy issue for President Barack Obama this year.
Since returning from Afghanistan, I've posed the "cold storage" question to several senior military, diplomatic and White House officials. It is a convenient litmus test for the larger questions: What is our long-term strategic purpose in Afghanistan? How much longer are we going to stay there? How much more money are we going to spend? There are strong arguments on both sides. "Yes, absolutely, we should provide cold-storage facilities," a senior military official told me. "They're shipping pomegranates from Kandahar airfield now. They need places to store them before shipment." (Afghan pomegranates have assumed an almost mythic value among U.S. officials, since they're the most valuable cash crop after opium poppies and a suitable replacement for them; the late Richard Holbrooke, Obama's special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, was obsessed with them.)
"But how do you make things cold?" an Administration official responded. "In order to provide cold storage, you need an electric power supply, which they don't have in Kandahar province. So do we build that too? You need transportation facilities. We're spending nearly twice as much on Afghanistan as we're spending on Homeland Security. We are going to have a serious budget discussion this year, including the Pentagon budget. We have to look closely at our priorities."
Despite such disagreements, there is surprising unanimity about the military portion of the Afghan endgame, especially after the successes of the past six months. Within two or three years certainly by the end of 2013 the vast majority of U.S. troops in Afghanistan will depart. There will be a continuing NATO presence, perhaps 25,000 (mostly U.S.) troops, to train, equip and provide logistics for the Afghan National Security Forces and to continue special operations against the Taliban and al-Qaeda in both Afghanistan and northern Pakistan. Kandahar and Bagram air bases will stage the operations and remain under NATO control for the foreseeable future.
This process will begin, on schedule, in July 2011. It will start, Administration officials say, with a formal statement from President Obama a statement similar to his announcement in March 2009 that major U.S. combat operations would end in Iraq by September 2010 and that U.S. troop levels would be reduced to 50,000. In this case, the troop withdrawals will be minuscule at first. General David Petraeus will have all of 2011 to solidify the gains NATO troops have made in the south this past year and attempt to stabilize the other main Taliban stronghold, in eastern Afghanistan. The Administration would like to see significant numbers of troops return home in 2012, which is, perhaps not coincidentally, the year of Obama's re-election campaign; Petraeus would like them to stay on for at least another year.
But even if Afghanistan can be stabilized militarily by Election Day in 2012 an enormous if the situation could quickly unravel if the government of President Hamid Karzai remains as corrupt and incompetent as it is now and if Afghanistan's neighbors India and Pakistan continue to see it as a pawn in their never ending enmity. Whether the U.S. should even address those long-term questions is the quiet fault line in the current Afghanistan-policy debate.