No matter how many times President Barack Obama and his senior officials tell the world that the Americans will not be pulling out of Afghanistan in just 13 months time, most Afghans believe that the US endgame is already well under way. The same is true for governments of neighboring countries known for their interference and influence-seeking in the Hindu Kush.
That means everyone from Afghan warlords to Taliban and al-Qaida commanders to intelligence agencies in neighboring states have upped their game to undercut rivals, achieve their aims and further their influence. The danger is that Afghanistan will once again become, in the words of Lord Curzon, the 19th century British imperial figure, "the cockpit of Asia.''
Obama himself gave the game away when he said last December that even though 30,000 more US troops would be deployed to Afghanistan this year in a large military and civilian surge to drive back the Taliban, by July 2011 US forces will start withdrawing from the country and handing it over to the Afghans. By this October there will be 100,000 US and more than 40,000 other troops -- mainly from other NATO countries in Afghanistan -- and by next July they will start withdrawing.
More than $25 billion has been poured into efforts to rebuild the Afghan army and police, but they are still largely illiterate, undertrained and irresponsible and nowhere near ready to take over nation-building tasks. Of the 5,200 Western military trainers that the US and NATO agreed were needed to mentor Afghan forces, only half have been deployed. And despite numerous promises, only 300 of those are Europeans.
For Afghans and powerful neighbors such as Pakistan, India and Iran, it is abundantly clear that the first American soldier to leave will be followed with a rush to the exit by European NATO countries, where the war has lost legitimacy and popularity. The Dutch have already declared their intentions to leave the critical southern province of Uruzghan this summer, the Canadians will leave Kandahar province next year followed possibly by the Danes. And the British have been asked by the Americans to leave Helmand province and redeploy to Kandahar.
Obama's surge was a well-considered notion except for the self-imposed time frame that has frustrated US commanders. On a positive note, the surge coincided with a new counterinsurgency strategy now embraced by NATO that puts an emphasis on protecting the people and pushing forward with development rather than killing insurgents. But that, too, requires time and not a 12-month deadline.
The US first applied its new military strategy in Marja, a small town in southern Helmand and center of the drugs trade. And yet the 15,000 Western and Afghan forces have still been unable to prevent the Taliban from returning to the town at night to lay mines in the roads, intimidate the population and prevent an Afghan administration from running the city.