In Afghanistan, heavy fighting is likely to persist well into 2014, particularly in the provinces along Pakistan’s border, senior military officials said. In contrast with Iraq, the Afghan government and security forces will require billions of dollars annually in U.S. support for the foreseeable future. It seems unlikely that the insurgents’ haven in Pakistan will shrink.
“In Afghanistan, you will be fighting a much tougher war over the next few years compared with Iraq post-2008,” said retired Lt. Gen. David Barno, who previously served as the top U.S. commander in Kabul.
Obama administration officials made the comparison to Iraq on Thursday as they scrambled to clarify Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta’s remarks that the United States hoped to end its combat mission in Afghanistan by the middle of next year, more than a year earlier than scheduled, and shift to advising Afghan forces.
“Iraq is a helpful reference point in this,” said White House spokesman Jay Carney. Just as in Iraq, he said, American advisers would remain in the country and would “continue to participate in combat missions.”
But by mid-2010, when the Obama administration declared an end to the U.S. combat mission in Iraq, American forces had already pulled out of the country’s major cities, where the war’s fiercest and bloodiest battles took place. The 49,000 U.S. advisory troops that remained took casualties, but the vast majority of the fighting was carried out by Iraqi forces.
In Afghanistan, Taliban forces still control swaths of territory in the mountainous eastern regions along the border, where they continue to kill Afghan government forces and intimidate villagers.
“Are we ready to take over? In some places, we are,” said one Afghan commander, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “But in others, we aren’t now, and we won’t be in a year.”
The Afghan commander’s concerns were echoed by senior U.S. military officials in Kabul who insisted that Panetta’s remarks did not signal a change in U.S. policy or even a planned diminution in combat operations for U.S. forces.
In many ways, the dust-up caused by Panetta’s remarks reflects a political divide within the Obama administration over how quickly the United States can and should turn over responsibility for security to an Afghan government that remains weak.
Senior military officials cautioned that the U.S. forces would still be in the lead in battles abutting havens in Pakistan, where commanders believe insurgents still receive assistance from that country’s intelligence service.
“We’re still going to be fighting,” said a senior military official in Kabul. “As time passes, we’ll become more distant to the [Afghan forces] as they become more self-sufficient and capable across 2014-2015.” The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because he did not want to appear as though he was contradicting his civilian leadership.