Declining Soft Power and the Timetable


A grandmother gestures to the body of her grandchild, who was killed by a U.S. service member in Panjwai. Courtesy of

As the war in Afghanistan drags on for over ten years, it is no surprise that U.S. military forces, the American public, and the Afghans themselves are getting tired. While the conflicts and worries in Afghanistan are extremely complex and hard to resolve, some points are clear: the Obama administration is intent on withdrawal of combat troops by 2014, and as the war continues, U.S. soft power declines.

According to the White House, Obama’s strategy for Afghanistan is three-fold. It includes “denying al-Qa’ida a safe haven, reversing the Taliban’s momentum, and strengthening the capacity of Afghanistan’s security forces and government so that they can take lead responsibility for Afghanistan’s future.” To accomplish these goals, the President ordered a surge of 33,000 troops in 2009. Meanwhile, other troops are to be gradually withdrawn, starting in July 2011, with the end goal being the complete transition of control to the Afghan government by 2014.

Even with the recent flaring of U.S.-Afghan tensions following the careless burning of Korans and the killing of 16 Afghan villagers, top U.S. officials have remained committed to the 2014 timetable. General John Allen, the top leader of NATO forces in Afghanistan, said that, despite the aforementioned drawbacks, the overall U.S.-Afghan relationship “remains strong.” In addition, he asserted that transition of responsibility to Afghan forces was “not merely the ‘way out'” but rather the “linchpin” of U.S. strategy. On the diplomatic side, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently met with the Afghan Foreign Minister in Washington, D.C., where both officials reaffirmed the friendship between the United States and Afghanistan and the continued efforts to talk with the Taliban.

Despite assurances of confidence from top officials like General Allen and Secretary Clinton, the decline in U.S. soft power caused by the recent incidents leaves one to wonder: Can the withdrawal plan really work and leave Afghanistan in a safe and stable state? This seems unlikely.

First, the likelihood of successful reconciliation between the Afghan government and the Taliban is slim. In response to the recent Koran burning and massacre of civilians, the Taliban has loaded a host of gruesome pictures and anti-American comments on their website, fueling further resentment toward the United States and indirectly weakening the legitimacy of the U.S.-backed Afghan government under President Hamid Karzai. At the same time, Karzai’s government has also criticized U.S. military conduct. With both would-be negotiators distrustful of each other and angry at the United States, the chief promoter of reconciliation talks, it is hard to expect progress anytime soon, let alone soon enough to leave Afghanistan politically unified and stable by 2014.

Second, the resentment caused by the actions of U.S. military members further damages U.S. image, making security enforcement harder to carry out. As evidenced by violent protests which claimed more than 30 Afghan lives and  over three assaults on U.S. military personnel following the Koran burning, decline in U.S. soft power is detrimental to Afghan security. As U.S. forces continue to stay in Afghanistan over the next two years, is U.S. image likely to improve or worsen? This could have a huge impact on the efficacy of the American military presence.

Unfortunately, the situation in Afghanistan is extremely complex. If the United States pulls out too soon, the current government is likely to fall apart. If the United States stays, however, it risks further decline in soft power. Will the end effect leave Afghanistan safer or more dangerous at the end of 2014? Only time will tell.


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