Textbooks documenting the U.S. war on terrorism will no doubt look to 2013 as a harbinger of Afghanistan's future. This year, American leaders began feeling comfortable referring to the end of 2014 as the conclusion of the 12-year-old war known as Operation Enduring Freedom. Yet debates raged over whether Afghanistan would be ready to secure itself.
Politics was rife in the region, as the Afghan equivalent of a parliament agreed to U.S. drawdown terms, and regional powers - particularly Pakistan - exerted increased influence over the war-weary American presence.
2013 was a year of wins and losses in Afghanistan. Take a look at some of the most notable outcomes and major events yet to-be-determined:
Nearing the End of Combat
President Barack Obama was elected in 2008 with a mandate for bringing America home from two protracted wars in the Middle East. Negotiations with Iraqi leadership collapsed in 2011, prompting Obama to ultimately withdraw all U.S. forces by the end of that year.
Obama first announced in 2011 that the U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan would be over by 2014, when America will have completed turning over all military responsibilities to Afghan forces. That rhetoric gained steam throughout 2012, but it was truly this year that America's policies locked in the details of withdrawing all combat forces by the end of next year.
The transition from a focus on combat to withdrawal on the horizon shifted the U.S. war footing in 2013. There were more than 68,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan at the beginning of this year. At the beginning of December, there were 60,000. That number is scheduled to drop to somewhere close to 30,000 by early 2014. American troops are expected to perform only an advise-and-support role during next summer's fighting season, a move considered a dress rehearsal of sorts for Afghanistan taking the lead in 2014.
The shift also resulted in a dramatic see-saw of casualties from U.S. forces to the Afghans as the locals began taking on increased responsibility. Coalition deaths peaked in 2010 at 711, according to icasualties.org, and dropped to 566 in 2011. By 2012, the number was down to 402, and there had been only 155 war-related deaths in Afghanistan as of December 2013.
Meanwhile, deaths among Afghan National Security Forces almost doubled from 2012 to 2013, according to RT.com. The Defense Department announced in November that the death rate among Afghans rose to above 100 per week during the peak of the summer fighting season for the first time ever.
The grand assembly known as the Loya Jirga serves as the closest institution to a western congress or parliament as could exist in the deeply tribal Afghan society. It is comprised of 2,500 elders that routinely meet to discuss and weigh in on pressing issues facing the nation.
A similar jirga in 2003 ratified the Afghan constitution.
U.S. officials offered wide praise (seeming almost surprised) for the assembly regarding its majority decision in November to accept a bilateral security agreement offered by Secretary of State John Kerry, which effectively outlines the U.S. presence in Afghanistan post-2014.
"I can't imagine a more compelling affirmation from the Afghan people themselves of their commitment to a long-term partnership with the United States and our international partners," Kerry said in a statement hours after the announcement of the assembly's decision.
"We very much welcome the conclusions of the Loya Jirga," U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan James Cunningham said. "Today's decision by the Jirga endorses Afghanistan's continued security cooperation with the United States and our international partners."
A Bilateral Security Agreement ... ?
There were still a few days left in December, at the time of this report, for Afghan President Hamid Karzai to sign off on the bilateral security agreement defining the U.S. and coalition presence in his native land beyond the withdrawal of combat troops by the end of 2014.
The Loya Jirga roundly accepted the agreement's terms but Karzai, who is supposed to relinquish his presidency following the election early next year, has refused to offer the final signature.
This leaves the fate of Afghanistan at the end of next year in flux, with White House officials indicating that the U.S. could be prepared to withdraw all troops with no advisers left behind, as it did in Iraq in 2011. (A top Iraqi official referenced the resulting blowback when he bluntly told Karzai Dec. 18 to take the deal.) Defense leaders, such as Secretary Chuck Hagel and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey, are reluctant to put any hard deadlines on when Karzai must sign the agreement. But they too indicate their patience will wear off by early next year.
At a press conference on Dec. 12, Hagel pointed to the NATO defense ministerial meeting at the end of February 2014, where the U.S. and its allies will discuss plans for drawing down troops and resources in Afghanistan. All 50 countries participating in the coalition need to weigh logistical, budgetary and political concerns for the gargantuan effort, he said.
"Our partners are going to want some clarity, some signal from the United States as to where we are," he said, when asked if February represented a deadline. "If we don't have a bilateral security agreement, that means there is no status-of-forces agreement that NATO must have to stay in Afghanistan post-2014."
"We're going to have to have some clarity, and not just for us, but our partners are going to expect that," Hagel said.
Experts who know Karzai personally have predicted that his decision to delay signing the BSA represents lame-duck theatrics, and is simply a show of force to anoint his political legacy with a powerful denouement. Others believe the president, who acknowledged at least some participation in election fraud in 2009, genuinely believes his political position - long supported by Western backers - allows him to make demands of America.
"I remain deeply concerned by President Karzai's attempts to seek additional assurances from the United States before finalizing the agreement," Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y. and ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said on Nov. 25. "The future of the U.S.-Afghan relationship is being placed at risk by these needless theatrics."
Election in Pakistan
Karzai often refers to Pakistan as "the brotherly country. " In recent speeches, he has pointed to the relationship between the two countries as critical to the future of Afghan security and the continued fight against resident Islamic extremists.
The two nations are starkly different in governance and geopolitical power (as well as, to say the least, nuclear capabilities). But they are forever linked through a shared history, perhaps most visible in the region that predates their shared border, known on the Pakistan side as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, or FATA. Clusters of ethnic groups in this rural and remote region operate much differently than those in Pakistan's many city centers, and the area has been a source of growing concern in the West.
The threat of insurgents in this region has prompted the Obama administration to continue a highly publicized armed drone campaign, which at times has been accused of killing innocent civilians. The drone program is considered an extension of America's sweeping and ill-defined war against terrorism, which slowly follows al-Qaida franchises as they pop up throughout the Middle East and North Africa.
Pakistan's elections in May 2013 were heralded as a critically important step, with the first democratically elected government completing a term and successfully transitioning power to another set of democratically elected officials. The elections bolstered ties between the Pakistani prime minister and Karzai, but also gave greater sway to a growing populist movement in Pakistan.
Imran Khan, a former cricket captain turned political leader, gained a significant following due to outrage over the U.S. drone campaign. He and his party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, used connections within the FATA to threaten the U.S. with closing off vital ground routes that flow through the region and are used to get supplies to Afghanistan. Stop the drone strikes, he said, or your troops don't get their supplies on time.
The issue remains a contentious one as routes through Pakistan are America's most efficient way of supplying landlocked Afghanistan. The U.S. must spend billions more for an alternative, and now eyes the end of next year for removing billions of dollars of combat equipment.
Failure to Control Corruption
Government officials soliciting bribes from Afghans remains a growing concern for the war-torn nation. Public accountability indices , such as one from Transparency International, routinely rank Afghanistan as one of the worst offenders for corruption in the world, along with North Korea and Somalia.
Corruption in Afghanistan accounts for nearly $4 billion in illicit transactions per year, according to the latest U.N. numbers.
Despite this concerning trend, the U.S. government's own inspector general for Afghanistan says America doesn't have a discernible plan for combating corruption. The U.S. Embassy in Kabul, then, cannot measure progress in fighting corruption and document what the U.S. government has accomplished, the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction said in a September report.
"Without a comprehensive strategy and a supporting implementation plan, it is difficult to adequately account for the U.S. funds and resources needed to implement these anti-corruption programs and activities or demonstrate measurable progress U.S. agencies have made in reducing corruption in Afghanistan," John Sopko, the special inspector general, wrote in a letter to Kerry and Cunningham.
The effects of Afghan corruption will be exacerbated by the continued U.S. drawdown in the coming year, limiting resources for oversight.
The U.S. already has issued almost $100 billion to the Afghan government for reconstruction purposes alone.