By the end of this summer, the 30,000 U.S. troops "surged" into Afghanistan by President Barack Obama's administration will have returned home. And according to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, the remaining 68,000 American soldiers could end their combat role in Afghanistan by mid-2013, more than a year ahead of the White House's deadline for leaving the country.
America's war in Afghanistan is by no means over, but its end has already begun. That reality is clear to all Afghan factional chiefs and power brokers, who are preparing for the transition to a post-American Afghanistan. As Afghanistan's alliances and power dynamics shift, the risk of cvil, ethnic conflict breaking out in the country rises -- endangering not only Afghans, but their Pakistani neighbors as well. And ironically, talk of peace and a U.S. withdrawal is contributing to a widening gap between key Afghan factions, which, if not properly contained, could lead to a renewed civil war.
President Hamid Karzai's intentions remain one potential source of instability looming in Afghanistan's future. Karzai has said that he will retire from public office in 2014, but many Afghans believe he will remain in power through unconventional or extra-constitutional measures. The president reportedly supported U.S. plans to accelerate the withdrawal by a year, lending weight to the theory that he is looking for greater maneuverability to prolong his rule.
If Karzai steps down, his replacement -- should one not come from his own family -- is likely to adopt a more hostile approach toward the Taliban, increasing the odds that the insurgency will fester. Abdullah Abdullah, who came in second in the rigged 2009 elections and could throw his hat in the ring once again, is a major Taliban opponent. But if Karzai seeks to stick around, doing so will be no cakewalk. Karzai will face stiff resistance from both a parliament that increasingly demands an expansion of its oversight powers and a rejuvenated political opposition, the National Front for Afghanistan (NFA).
The NFA is a bloc of leaders from three major non-Pashtun communities -- the Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazara -- all of whom opposed the Taliban and Pakistan during the 1990s and remain hostile to both. As Karzai apparently seeks to hold on to executive power, the NFA is pushing for an overhaul of the country's political system. It advocates restructuring Afghanistan as a parliamentary democracy with proportional representation and locally-devolved power -- both of which would benefit non-Pashtuns.
Karzai, an ethnic Pashtun, seeks a political settlement with the three major insurgent factions -- all Pashtuns as well -- led by Mullah Muhammad Omar's Afghan Taliban. But the NFA, as well as a large bloc of parliamentarians from a diverse assortment of ethnic groups and political parties, are hostile to talks with the Taliban, and will at the very least demand a meaningful role in the peace process.
That remains difficult to imagine, as few Afghans aside from the insurgents remain involved in the peace talks. The most promising dialogue track has so far taken place outside of Afghanistan and involves the Afghan Taliban and the governments of Germany, Qatar, and the United States. The location of the Taliban's new office in Qatar was decided against the wishes of the Afghan government, which wanted the office to be in Ankara or Riyadh.