Within the forthcoming three weeks several major changes are to happen in American military and civilian leadership in Afghanistan. Three top officials are leaving the country – all after long tenures. They include the US Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, the commanding general in Afghanistan David Petraeus and the second commanding general, the man who has been responsible for running the war day to day, David M. Rodriguez.
All three are probably the best-informed people in the US with regards to the everyday problems of today’s Afghanistan. Maybe from the point of view of the general strategy their replacement with other officials will not signify any substantial change in the policy, but from the Afghan point of view, where personalities matter a lot more than they do in the West, this move means much more than just a reshuffle of commanding officers.
Some people in Afghanistan, especially those most dependent on the US aid, have already seen the move as a sign of abandoning Afghanistan. Well, there might be ground for such conclusion – taking into account that the war has been by and large lost, and even the generals, usually ready to boast of their military achievements, cannot be sure what course the situation in Afghanistan will take in the nearest future.
Definitely, President Barack Obama has found himself in a difficult situation. In 2008, he promised to put an end to the two wars he inherited. But ending the war in Afghanistan at this moment would mean an acknowledgement of a defeat and, which is more crucial, losing control over the strategically important region on the crossroads from the Indian Ocean to Central Asia, and from the Middle East to India and China. This is clearly not an acceptable option for Obama or any other American president.
As if trying to dispel the fears felt by some people in the top echelons of Afghan establishment, The Times newspaper has published an article in which, referring to some unnamed “military sources”, it reported of secret American plans to replace the conventional troops being withdrawn from Afghanistan by special operation forces (SOF) like Navy Seals, Army ''Green Beret'' Rangers and others. As estimated by military experts, 16 special operations personnel are considered to be worth the equivalent of 100 conventional troops.
On May 22, Barack Obama announced that about 33,000 American soldiers will leave Afghanistan over the next 15 months. At present, there are about 7,000 SOF personnel in Afghanistan, and the total strength of all special units located elsewhere in the world amounts to 61,000.
A simple calculation shows that it would require about one fourth of the total SOF personnel to replace the equivalent of the 100,000 troops now present in Afghanistan. So, the US-fed Afghan officials should not worry too much: Barack Obama (or whoever will be the US President in 2014) is not going to “abandon” them.
And therefore all the talks of the troops withdrawal are meant purely for domestic consumption. This was the case with Iraq, where the combat troops were simply relabeled as some 50,000-strong contingent of “non-combat military advisors” (including the 3,000-strong SOF personnel). In Afghanistan the cover-up story is probably going to be a little bit more sophisticated. At present, the US special units are covertly operating in 60 to 80 countries, and no one calls on the president to call them off.
So, the war in Afghanistan will probably go on, and more so – it will even be waged by more effective means than now. Employment of special forces also means that none of the neighboring countries can be sure that operations will not affect them. The US Navy Seals and Army Green Berets have a long-lasting tradition of launching operations on the territory of sovereign states without asking permission.
And nobody is giving any guarantee that this will not be the case in the future.