Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s meetings this week in Washington should help resolve some of the key issues that will determine his country’s fate and the U.S. role in it. These include how many U.S. troops will remain in Afghanistan after 2014 and also how rapidly those leaving will depart. The Afghan-U.S. discussions should also help resolve uncertainties concerning peace negotiations with the Afghan Taliban and their foreign backers as well as how Karzai will transfer power to his duly elected successor in 2014. Above all, the meetings will make evident the limits of American power in a land that has seen generations of conflict, a legacy that seems likely to continue for many more years.
The Afghan National Army (ANA), which already has the lead combat role in protecting more than three-fourths of the country’s population, is scheduled this summer to take over that role throughout the country from the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). The ISAF coalition currently has 100,000 troops, the majority from the United States, but as many as half may be withdrawn by the end of this year as ISAF transitions into more of a support role to the 300,000-man ANA.
Despite its growing responsibilities, the ANA still suffers from weaknesses and gaps, such as inadequate training, logistics and intelligence, weak aviation and firepower, and a poor ability to detect and neutralize improvised explosive devices. The fact that a third of its personnel must be replaced each year makes it hard to build the force’s capabilities. Not only do one-fourth of the recruits fail to re-enlist after their three-year enlistment is over, but ANA units suffer from high desertion and defection rates.