The Afghanistan Reckoning

U.S., British and Danish troops are seen in Trikh Nawar on the North Eastern outskirts of Marjah, in Afghanistan's southern Helmand province in this February 21, 2010 file photo.
This story was written by political reporter Brian Montopoli.
For those of us lucky enough not to be closely connected to the battle for Afghanistan - not to be fighting, to be waiting for a husband or wife to come back, to be wondering why it's been so long since we're heard from a son or daughter - the war can be easy to ignore.

It's been nearly nine years, after all. Nine years in which what was seen as a righteous response to the Sept. 11 attacks slowly morphed into just another fact of life, a distant and murky conflict fading into the background, displaced by everyday problems and new distractions.

In June, 102 American and allied soldiers were killed in Afghanistan, the worst month since the war began. That figure may well be surpassed in July; the number of wounded is up substantially as well.

In one 24-hour period last week, eight American troops died in a trio of attacks, including a car bomb. The Pentagon has not yet released the names of these latest fallen, who join 20-year old Lance Cpl. William T. Richards of Trenton, Georgia, 22-year-old Cpl. Claudio Patino of Yorba Linda, California, and more than 1,000 others on the list of Americans who went into Afghanistan and never came out. Special Report: Afghanistan

The war is now entering its most crucial period, the year that will dictate if and when we will leave, and what, if anything, we will call victory. President Obama has insisted that, if conditions on the ground permit, America will begin the process of withdrawing troops from Afghanistan in July 2011 - one year from this month. Afghan president Hamid Karzai, meanwhile, said Tuesday that Afghan police and soldiers will be ready to take control of the country's security by 2014.

With the clock ticking loudly, Afghan leaders are plotting, politicians are bickering, and coalition forces are embarking on a go-for-broke push that is being portrayed as the best, last chance to break the back of the Taliban insurgency.

Meanwhile, violence remains a fact of life for the Afghan people. There was little surprise when the arrival of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other top-level diplomats in Kabul for an international conference Tuesday was marked by explosions echoing through the capital.

Here are the four factors that will determine if, and when, the war will finally come to an end.

The Fight

In February, coalition and Afghan forces pushed into a Taliban stronghold in southern Afghanistan called Marjah. The effort was seen as a test run and momentum builder before an offensive in nearby (and much larger) Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban.

While the initial push into Marjah was largely a success - albeit a bloody one - the aftermath was a different story.

The U.S.-led counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan is not primarily about killing the enemy. Rather, the focus is on nation building - creating stable and functioning governing structures that encourage potential enemies to turn away from the Taliban and al Qaeda.

In Marjah, the coalition attempted to install a "government in a box," as then-top Afghanistan commander Stanley McChrystal described it. It was meant to foster an environment in which insurgents, enticed by the possibility of a steady paycheck and easier life, were incentivized to work within the new reality instead of against it.

It didn't work. The Marjah offensive was widely publicized before it began, giving the Taliban plenty of time to hole up, wait out the initial push, and then go on the attack. The insufficiently-manned government in a box failed to take hold, and the Taliban was able to keep a high-profile, threatening presence, executing those who cooperated with the Americans. Three months after the initial offensive, McChrystal would be describing Marjah as a "bleeding ulcer."

The planned Kandahar offensive, meanwhile, got pushed back. Local leaders have proven less-than-eager to sign on with the coalition for a number of reasons: their longstanding ties to the Taliban, the lessons of Marjah, and the belief that the U.S. will be gone by July of next year, leaving the coalition's allies at the mercy of its enemies.

President Hamid Karzai's brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, essentially rules Kandahar. Nothing gets done there without the approval of the president's brother, who is reportedly tied to the opium and heroin trade and believed to operate something like a crime boss; reconstruction money in the region often ends up in the hands of criminal elements, who battle over who gets to be the one to steal it.

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The United States has an uneasy relationship with Ahmed Wali Karzai, reportedly buying him off and benefiting from his inside knowledge while also lamenting the corruption and lawlessness that helps keep him (and his brother) in power.

It is into this environment that thousands of coalition and Afghan troops are now pouring into the region for a planned push to clear the area of insurgents in late July or early August. They are not, military officials now insist, there for an "offensive": instead, the sure-to-be-bloody push is being called a mission of cooperation, as though, as CBS News' Mandy Clark put it, the troops had shown up for a neighborhood barbecue.

Other places in Afghanistan (Kunduz in the north, Khost in the east) are arguably just as problematic as Kandahar right now. But the coalition is heavily invested in achieving success in the region, with victory there being portrayed as the key to turning the tide against the Taliban. If nothing else, the already tenuous domestic support for the war is unlikely to hold without tangible progress in what has become the military's central operation.

The Military

The now-famous Rolling Stone article that led to McChrystal's dismissal laid bare the tensions between the former general's team and much of the war's civilian leadership. But it also spotlighted something that from the troops' perspective is a much bigger issue: The war's rules of engagement, which many have complained are far too restrictive.

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Fearful of killing civilians (and in the process, potentially creating a host of new terrorists), McChrystal last year tightened the rules of engagement to limit the circumstances in which troops can fire and launch attacks. While there had been complaints about restrictive rules of engagement even before the change, the decision brought to a boil complaints that the rules put troops' lives at risk. (Said one service member to the Washington Post: "We've been handcuffed by our chain of command.")

General David Petraeus, who took over for McChrystal, has promised to "look very hard" at the current rules, though it's not clear what, if anything, he will change. In a counterinsurgency strategy - something about which Petraeus literally wrote the book - keeping a lid on civilian casualties, despite the risks associated with it, comes with the territory.