WASHINGTON -- The end game in Afghanistan is off to a shaky start.
Just as the last U.S. "surge" troops leave the country, trouble is breaking out in ways that go to the core of the strategy for winding down the U.S. and allied combat role and making Afghans responsible for their own security. At stake is the goal of ensuring that Afghanistan does not revert to being a terrorist haven.
Nearly two years after President Barack Obama announced that he was sending another 33,000 troops to take on the Taliban, those reinforcements are completing their return to the United States this week. That leaves about 68,000 American troops, along with their NATO allies and Afghan partners, to carry out an ambitious plan to put the Afghans fully in the combat lead as early as next year.
But the setbacks are piling up: a spasm of deadly attacks on U.S. and NATO forces by Afghan soldiers and police, including three attacks in the last three days; an audacious Taliban assault on a coalition air base that killed two Marines and destroyed six fighter jets; and a NATO airstrike that inadvertently killed eight Afghan women and girls.
The Pentagon on Monday identified the two Marines killed at Camp Bastion on Friday as Lt. Col. Christopher K. Raible, 40, of Huntingdon, Pa., and Sgt. Bradley W. Atwell, 27, of Kokomo, Ind. Raible was commander of the Harrier squadron that had six of its planes destroyed in the assault.
Tensions over the anti-Islam movie produced in the U.S. that ridicules the Prophet Mohammad also spread to Kabul, where demonstrations turned violent Monday when protesters burned cars and threw rocks at a U.S. military base. Early Tuesday, a suicide bomber rammed a car packed with explosives into a minibus carrying foreign aviation workers to the airport in the Afghan capital, killing at least nine people in an attack a militant group said was revenge for the film.
Those events help the Taliban's aim of driving a wedge between the Americans and their Afghan partners. They also show that the Taliban, while weakened, remains a force to be reckoned with, 11 years after the first U.S. troops arrived to drive the Taliban out.
The extra troops began moving into Afghanistan in early 2010, pushing the total U.S. force to a peak of 101,000 by mid-2011.
The U.S. troop surge was supposed to put so much military pressure on the Taliban that its leaders - most of whom are in Pakistan - would feel compelled to come to the peace table. That hasn't happened. Preliminary contacts began, but have been stymied.
When he announced his decision in December 2009 to send the 33,000 extra troops, Obama said it was aimed at seizing the initiative in a war that was "not lost, but for several years ... has moved backwards."
Battlefield momentum was regained but doubts persist about how long-lasting the progress will prove to be.