No. 8: Leaving Afghanistan

As the last U.S. combat troops in Iraq prepare to return home, 2012 seems to offer a glimmer of hope for war-weary Americans suffering under economic strain. Could the United States finally be finished with its decade-long operations in the Middle East? Might the government redirect resources toward solving domestic problems?

More importantly, what will the global impact be when Americans go home? There have been plenty of worst-case scenarios offered, but the man who directed the Counterinsurgency Training Center in Kabul offers some solid hope — if politics in an election year don’t get in the way.

Double wind-down
The decade since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks has been defined by two major wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which have taken the lives of thousands of U.S. soldiers and have cost trillions of taxpayer dollars, with uncertain results. However, there was at least one major U.S. victory among the murky engagements: the killing of al-Qaida founder Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan, in May 2011.

Now President Obama has followed through on plans to wind both wars down. The final withdrawal of American troops from Iraq is scheduled for this month, and the withdrawal from Afghanistan is underway, with some 10,000 troops of the 100,000-strong U.S. force expected to return home by the end of the year. For 2012, President Obama intends to pull out about 33,000 troops, or approximately one-third of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan, by September. The goal is for NATO coalition combat forces to turn over security to Afghanistan by the end of 2014.

Read more about the troop withdrawal from Iraq

However, when it comes to the Middle East, nothing is ever simple. The government of Pakistan, a key if problematic ally on Afghanistan’s border, is outraged by NATO air strikes on the border, which killed 24 Pakistani soldiers on November 27. Pakistan then pulled out of an international NATO conference intended to assist Afghanistan’s peace talks with the Taliban. Late in November, Iraq experienced episodes of insurgent violence. In Afghanistan, Islamist insurgent groups like the Haqqani network — alleged by outgoing U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen to receive support from Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence Directorate — are targeting suspected informants for gruesome murders. The Afghan government, led by president Hamid Karzai, is still bedeviled with corruption, and the Afghan economy is fragile. In fact, Karzai just asserted at a meeting in Bonn, Germany, that Afghanistan would need an American military presence for at least another decade.

Worse-case scenario … unlikely
The global impact of this Afghanistan withdrawal on 2012 depends entirely on how it is handled, says retired Army Colonel John Agoglia, who is currently vice president of IDS International, a team of experts on conflict, instability, and crisis. The worst-case scenario involves the country descending into civil war, which would erode the standing of the United States in the region, and which would strengthen militant extremist groups like al-Qaida, the Taliban, and the Haqqani network.

But Agoglia, who spent three years directing the Counterinsurgency Training Center in Kabul, doesn’t think that’s going to happen. The NATO coalition forces have secured several former Taliban strongholds and have gained the trust the of the Afghan people, as the U.S. is working with the Afghans to help them develop government and economic institutions. For these reasons, Agoglia says the withdrawal is not his preferred strategy, as it limits the Army commander’s ability to go after the Haqqani network. But it is possible to remove all 30,000-plus troops this year without leaving behind chaos or safe havens for violent groups like al-Qaida. The most important thing is for the troops to be removed from each region strategically, taking into consideration the strength and stability of the Afghan security forces and government in the area.

If Obama lets politics get the best of him, however, and sets hard-and-fast deadlines to score political points on the home front ahead of the elections, instead of sticking to a conditions-based withdrawal, that’s where things could go wrong. But Agoglia believes Obama is aware of the stakes.

“President Obama has said he’s committed to resolving the crisis in Afghanistan. He’s been working it; he committed to the surge. While the message has been a little back-and-forth in terms of the idea of a conditions-based withdrawal, it seems like his administration understands the need for a conditions-based withdrawal. He’s caught between the need for meeting his political goals, but at the same time meeting the objectives of the campaign strategy, so he’s walking a fine line. But I don’t think he will to go the point of risking the hard-fought gains on the ground from the surge for political expedency.”

A soldier’s homecoming
At home in the U.S., the return of tens of thousands of soldiers promises to create new challenges for Congress and the president to address. If the size of the Armed Forces is reduced, which is likely, that’s a lot of young men and women looking for work in a job-strapped economy. Already, returning veterans are struggling to find work; the unemployment rate among veterans, at 13.3%, is higher than the national average. Thanks to the Post-9/11 GI Bill, enacted in 2009, many of them will be have a chance to get more education on the government’s dime.

The country will also see a rise of combat-related psychological disorders, as one report estimates that 26% of returning soldiers will suffer from traumatic brain injury, depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder. These injuries and disorders may manifest over months and years, when veterans find it difficult to readjust to civilian life. The Department of Defense and Veterans Affairs are already bracing for an influx of PTSD cases.

Lisa Hix is a freelance writer and a former Yahoo! editor who has been published in the San Francisco Chronicle, Glamour, and Bust. She’s currently an associate editor at Collectors Weekly and a KQED Arts blogger. Find her on Twitter.