The month of September saw the last of the 33,000 surge troops leave Afghanistan, in accordance with President Obama's directive of 18 months ago. Some 68,000 U.S. troops remain. These soldiers are scheduled to leave by the end of 2014. The question is: What will happen to Afghanistan afterward?
By 2014, the United States will have spent a dozen years developing Afghan society, building infrastructure, training Afghan police and military, and encouraging democratic governance in that country. It would be wrong, however, to suggest that the United States has staked its prestige in a successful Afghanistan after 2014. At some point, the Afghans have to take care of themselves.
If the history of war is any guide, the crucial factor in keeping the government of Afghanistan out of the hands of the Taliban will be morale. If the Taliban are not seen as the inevitable victors after an American withdrawal, if Afghan forces do not regard the Taliban as their superiors on the battlefield, then the chances are better than even that the regime in Kabul that America leaves behind in 2014 will survive. It will survive even the departure of current President Hamid Karzai.
This is not to say that the contours of the region of control by Kabul will not change from what they are now, with U.S. troops present. The area in which the writ of Kabul runs ought to shrink from what it is now. But this is no reason for despair; it is simply a recognition of the geography of the country and the loss of offensive power backing the Kabul regime occasioned by the departure of U.S. forces.
The loss of some space will lead to a crisis of morale for some. If the regime and the Afghan armed forces that support it are able to dominate the crisis, then one of two possible outcomes will occur.
The first possible outcome is a new equilibrium. Afghanistan will settle down into a loosely knit country dominated in the hinterland by local warlords, of which the Taliban will be one of several; and the capital area will be controlled by a regime nominally like the one left behind. Such was the nature of the country from its founding in 1747 to the 1974 revolution.
The second possible outcome is that the Taliban decide to square off with the Kabul regime and fight a real war on real battlefields for control of the entire country. This they will find difficult to do. The Taliban, throughout their existence, have never had to fight a battle that required the coordination of battalions of troops, the accurate delivery of firepower and logistical resupply of ammunition.
The Taliban seized power in the 1990s due to a collapse in morale of their opponents, who feared individual retribution; and they lost power in 2002 because of the coordination of U.S. air power with the Northern Alliance troops, who simply showed up. The speed of the Taliban collapse in 2002 surprised many they lost both Kabul and Kandahar in a single campaign season but such is the effect of a sudden loss of morale.
While the Taliban may be able to locally outnumber Afghan troops in the mountains, the major cities and population centers are on plains. The semi-trained Afghan forces greatly outnumber the untrained ragtag forces that the Taliban, at the best of times, are able to put into the field. The Taliban can train a dozen for a single operation as evidenced at Camp Bastion but putting together the platoons and companies and battalions required to fight a stand-up battle with the Afghan National Army (ANA) and to resupply them are likely beyond their capacity. The Taliban can dominate here and there with small numbers through threats against individuals. But when enough Taliban bunch together they become a visible target, hittable even by ANA forces.
This is where morale comes in. If the ANA believes that the Taliban are unbeatable; if the ANA commanders are incompetent or lazy; if the Taliban are able to undermine the morale of the ANA by threats and assassinations; and if the Kabul regime is so corrupt that it fails to look after the soldiers protecting it; then threat alone can cause a collapse of the ANA despite the disparity in offensive power between the ANA and the Taliban.
Afghanistan is a large country with rugged terrain ideal for small guerrilla bands to dominate here and there. The big picture, however, is that the Kabul regime is favored by geography to control the most space and the large population centers. The Kabul regime can survive if its morale holds up and if that confidence is transmitted to the forces that protect it and to the people it governs.