In public, U.S .military officials have chosen to focus on their success in training and advising an Afghan national security force that is taking a far greater lead in patrolling its own territory. But behind closed doors, it would be surprising if those same Americans were not staying up late at night, wondering whether the Afghans can truly protect themselves after foreign forces leave in December 2014.
Indeed, it is not only the United States, but ordinary Afghans who are debating these very same questions. Do Afghan leaders have what the ability or the willingness to weed out a pervasive system of corruption? Can the army hold its gains against an insurgency that refuses to give up? And will Afghanistan continue to enjoy democracy, however weak its form, as the international community decreases its investment in the country?
Some Afghans are not waiting to find out. Worried that their country will once again succumb to the warlordism of the early 1990’s, 50,000 or more Afghans decided to flee their country for new pastures last year. A vast majority did so illegally, thanks to the long wait in getting a visa or permit from a foreign country. Most of those who choose to flee are leaving their homes and livelihoods behind—knowing that the dangerous trek across borders is likely to be a one-way trip.
If this is a sign of things to come, then it would at least appear on the surface that a significant number of Afghans do not believe that their government will be able to hold onto the gains that have been made in security (with U.S. and NATO help) over the past four years. Looking at the country today, it is not an entirely unfounded notion. While the Taliban have been degraded on the battlefield from the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and the Afghan military, the insurgency is still operating at an impressive level.
Fortunately for the United States and its allies in the NATO coalition, troop deaths from international forces have declined, with 2012 showing fewer casualties than the previous year. It is also true that even the Quetta Shura Taliban can no longer be considered a unified movement; reports of Taliban emissaries mulling over peace talks with the Afghan Government is an illustration that some segments of the organization realize that they cannot win the war through military means alone.
Yet despite the decline in NATO troop deaths, a disturbing set of facts have been revealed this year, which may partly explain why tens of thousands of Afghans are trying to get out of the country.
The Afghan army, after having neared its 352,000 threshold, is suffering incredible losses as they try to take over the fight on their own. According to data released by the U.S. Department of Defense, there was a 124 percent rise in the number of Afghan troops being hit by IED’s—which the Taliban continue to use effectively against government and foreign troops. To take just one example of the bloody plight that Afghans are now witnessing, last month at least 18 Afghan police officers were killed in a single day from suicide and roadside bombings against their conveys.
Afghan troops are also dying at an unprecedented rate. Gen. Mohammad Zahir Azimi, an Afghan Defense Ministry Spokesman, told Stars and Stripes that an average of nearly 300 security forces have been killed monthly over the past few months. Meanwhile, the Afghan army's high attrition rate forces it to replace a third of its entire force every year.
As much as U.S., NATO, and Afghan officials are publicly claiming that the war is coming to an end, the fact is that the Afghan conflict is only entering another stage—one in which there will not be tens of thousands of foreign soldiers for reinforcement. Indeed, there is a strong possibility that the pace of the insurgency could increase as international troops pull back or terminate key enablers such as air power, medivac support, troop transport, and intelligence.
None of this is preordained; the United States seems content with supporting the Afghans economically and militarily for years to come with spending that is estimated to be $4 billion a year. But a less hopeful outcome is anything but unrealistic. When viewed through this prism, it is easier to understand why tens of thousands of Afghans are fleeing, and why those who choose to stay are preparing for the worst.
Daniel R. DePetris is a Washington, D.C. analyst and a past contributor to The Diplomat.