Recent events in Afghanistan have fuelled speculations over the internationals’ ability to last out their stay in the country even until 2014. In January, 4 American Marines in Helmand were shown urinating on corpses in a video. In February, in a case that appears to have been no more than exceedingly poor judgement, some copies of the Qur’an were burnt, damaged and treated in a disrespectful manner. In March, a US army staff sergeant in Panjwayi district of Kandahar province is believed to have killed 17 individuals (many of whom were women and children) in a single night.
A number of prominent international voices have called on America (and the other 49 countries serving in the ISAF coalition) to start leaving Afghanistan immediately. The argument they present is that foreign forces are unable to play a positive role inside Afghanistan, that they will be unable to start doing so, and that large numbers of lives and amounts of money are being spent to no avail.
The general themes of Afghan public opinion — as gathered from discussions with Afghans as well as from following civil society debate and media discourse — as displayed towards the foreign presence is above all a deep scepticism towards anyone’s promises. Outside major cities, there is a severe lack of trust in the international forces or any overall positive vision of Afghanistan’s future. It seems that few are hopeful that Afghanistan will be better off five years from now.
A key metric that illustrates this is the number of people leaving the country. Afghans are leaving Afghanistan to neighbouring countries, and are travelling further afield. This group has very high numbers of children and adolescents. In fact, 2011 saw the highest numbers of such departures since the latest round of international engagement began in 2001, more 30,000 all in.
In this paper, we will assess the current staying power of the international presence in Afghanistan from a military as well as broader strategic perspective. To what extent are they able to continue to carry out their mission? What are the likely key milestones between now and 2014? And to what extent do the on-going discussions between the United States and the Taliban offer a way to make this transition period easier?