As NATO's mission in Afghanistan, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), officially reaches the end of its mandate at the close of the year, the painstakingly obvious realization is that not much is changing. There are several alterations to the legal framework surrounding the deployment of foreign forces to Afghanistan, one of which is the U.S.-Afghanistan Status Of Forces Agreement coming into action on Jan. 1, but the practicalities of ongoing foreign military activities in Afghanistan have been established and will continue along those lines. For all intents and purposes, few things will change.
The main body of the ISAF operation, as well as much of the U.S. equipment sent to Afghanistan, has been removed from the country, and the remaining forces have transitioned into their current role over the past few years. They are now less directly engaged in combat operations, although training and advisory operations aimed at maintaining the capabilities of the Afghan security forces will continue. These Afghan forces have already taken up the main responsibility for security operations, although their ability to execute them still depends heavily on remaining foreign support. Kabul cannot provide financial support for the Afghan military and police forces on its own, so preventing a collapse of security will require continued funding from other countries, primarily the United States.
Even then, questions remain about Kabul's ability to keep members of its security forces under control. Many could abandon their jobs or even join the Taliban, and the forces' capabilities could wither rapidly as their responsibilities grow. Much like the U.S. experience in Iraq, disengagement from the theater does not necessarily guarantee that intervention in Afghanistan is permanently ruled out. However, unlike in Iraq, the residual U.S. force staying in Afghanistan will still possess considerable firepower to help maintain the status quo when needed.
Although the ISAF has achieved its initial objective of preventing Afghanistan from being a haven for international terrorist organizations and remaining Islamist elements are under constant pressure, this pressure will need to be maintained to fulfill that objective in the longer term. The militants are still there; their capabilities have been degraded and they have been displaced, but they have not been destroyed. This situation became inevitable once the Taliban decided to adopt an insurgent, long-war style of fighting. Realizing they could not defeat the NATO forces, they opted to outwait them.
The complex physical and human geography of Afghanistan, and perhaps more importantly its border area with Pakistan, has allowed the Taliban, al Qaeda and others to persist. Even though the Afghan and Pakistani governments have agreed to cooperate in combating the militants on both sides of the border simultaneously — a basic requirement for success — it remains to be seen whether this agreement will have any real consequences and diminish the ability of the Taliban, al Qaeda and other militant organizations to conduct operations.
Countries directly involved in fighting the militants have limited capabilities in permanently controlling the threat, and so the burden — financially or militarily — falls on external actors with a vested interested in maintaining a certain level of security in Afghanistan. The United States is not the only outside power that qualifies for this position; China's increased interest in developing a natural resources industry in Afghanistan has raised Beijing's concerns about the country's stability and security. Moreover, a potential spillover of insecurity into China is not far-fetched. The potential for violence to spread beyond the Afghan borders could compel China or other countries such as Russia, Iran and India, to take a larger role in guaranteeing Afghanistan's security.
The big question is whether that external support can last long enough to allow Afghanistan to become a viable entity on its own. The Afghans can become self-sustaining economically and in the area of security. It is also possible that they are not sufficiently interested in achieving such stability and that the situation will eventually devolve again. The current security apparatus is an artificial construct in the sense that it is dependent on and maintained by foreign enablers. This will make foreign interests in Afghanistan the decisive factor in its long-term progression.
These are the longer-term challenges for Afghanistan. The current change in missions, however, represents few actual changes for the country at this point, and it is unlikely that the Taliban will suddenly retake large areas of Afghanistan. In the short term, Afghanistan will simply continue the trend that was established during the initial drawdown of U.S. and coalition forces in the country.