In much of the world this is a time of new beginnings. In Afghanistan, it is time to mark the beginning of an end: A dozen year commitment of foreign troops to fight the Taliban will wind down this year, meaning 51,000 American soldiers are poised to take their leave from a conflict that appears to be stumbling towards a stalemate, or worse.
The Afghanistan mission has been the longest military engagement in American history. For Canada, which saw 30,000 of its soldiers pass through the country over nine and a half years, it is the largest military operation since the Second World War. One hundred and fifty-eight Canadian soldiers and four civilians died, and by the end of 2010, a total of 1,859 military members had been wounded.
Those grim figures are just part of the reason why Afghanistan's future should still matter – to Canada and its allies. Even though Canada's combat mission ended in 2011, our legacy will endure long after the troops exit. So it's worth looking over our shoulder at what lies ahead for Afghanistan. On many counts, the country's prospects appear dim.
Last weekend, The Washington Post revealed a bleak new American intelligence assessment on the Afghan war. It predicts a future where the Taliban wields even more influence than it does today, and the Afghan government less.
The hard fought gains made by the Western allies over the past three years thanks to a costly troop surge? They will be largely forfeited by 2017, according to the assessment, even if Washington continues to pour billions of dollars into the country and leaves a skeleton force behind to train Afghan security forces. In spite of the fact that support for the war in Afghanistan has plunged to an all-time low (below 20 per cent, according to a recent CNN poll) maintaining some kind of a military presence after the drawdown remains a key piece of Washington's exit strategy.
The trouble is, even that part of the American plan is unravelling. Afghan President Hamid Karzai is refusing to sign off on a Bilateral Security Agreement which would maintain a skeleton force of American troops in Afghanistan after the current NATO mission ends this year. Mr. Karzai's impractical demands have ranged from a total ban on counterterrorism raids by American forces on Afghan homes, to a Guantanamo Bay prisoner release. In November, after difficult negotiations, diplomats managed to assuage his concerns to the point of hammering out an agreement that Mr. Karzai submitted to a council of Afghan elders, which approved it.
But that still wasn't good enough for Mr. Karzai, who now says he may not sign the deal until after presidential elections in April – elections which are to choose his successor. And then there's that. It would be better if Afghanistan's new president proved to be someone whose behaviour bears slightly less of a resemblance to that of a petulant child; someone capable of cleaning up the corruption that has been a hallmark of Mr. Karzai's rule. But chances are, the winner will be someone Mr. Karzai endorses -- most likely his brother, Qayum Karzai who announced his candidacy last year. He says he will fight for democracy, economic development and women's rights.
If he wins, we wish him all the luck in the world, but if the last twelve years have taught us anything about Afghanistan it is this: Without basic security, things like free elections, road construction and girls schools are little more than pipe dreams. Even the most optimistic forecasts suggest the Afghanistan's 350,000-member security force simply isn't ready to fight the Taliban without American support. Whether Mr. Karzai likes it or not, Afghanistan will still need some American soldiers beyond 2014.
That's especially because a negotiated peace with the Taliban is unlikely to be reached anytime soon, if ever. Last summer, talks with the Taliban fell apart again, undermining what little hope remains for a political settlement to the armed conflict. Nobody is likely to return to the bargaining table until after the presidential elections. Until then, military commanders say it's vital to keep up the pressure on the Taliban, to deny them the upper hand peace negotiations.
But without an effective security deal with the U.S., there will be a massive vacuum. Washington is now threatening to withdraw all of its forces and aid unless Mr. Karzai signs off of the Bilateral Security Agreement. One would think, after all of the lives and money spent over the last twelve years, it's the least he could do.
One way or the other, 2014 will be pivotal year for Afghanistan: The year the West largely leaves the country, and the year Mr. Karzai exits the Presidential palace. At the moment, it appears neither will be able to do so gracefully.