Can Afghan forces bring security when Nato leaves?
"That's a 21st Century ass-whooping right there," says a US marine as an airstrike turns a mud compound into dust. That was the offensive against the Taliban in Marjah, in southern Afghanistan, in the spring. The video, filled with a constant chatter of automatic fire, was taken by marines and passed to us.
After a year-long campaign of "ass-whooping", Nato hopes it has "shaped the battlefield" to help achieve its objectives for the next phase of the campaign. The plan is to leave the Taliban weakened enough for the Afghan police and army to start taking over from the international forces. Another aim may be to force the insurgents into talks with the government, though this is not publicly stated by Nato officers.
"Finally, we've aligned our resources with the demands of the campaign," said Nato's top civilian official in Afghanistan, Mark Sedwill, speaking about the surge of forces ordered by President Obama. "It's still fragile. There's a long campaign ahead but we've regained the initiative having, candidly, lost it in the past."
The American surge will start to ebb away in July of next year. The first provinces - or parts of them - will be handed over to Afghan security control in the first half of 2011. It will be a gradual process. First the Afghans will take the lead in partnered operations, then Nato will progressively step back, moving from "tactical overwatch" to "strategic overwatch".
End Quote Mark Sedwill Top Nato civilian official in Afghanistan
The real issue is will there be an insurgency around which is an existential threat to the state, which is the case now in parts of the country”
Are the Afghan forces ready? In October, we joined the American forces south-west of Kandahar during their effort to tighten the noose around the Taliban in their traditional heartland.
Afghan troops had been camping out in a field, US armoured vehicles around them in a protective circle. As the sun rose, a fistfight broke out between an Afghan sergeant and one of his men who was refusing to get up to go out on patrol with the US troops. This was not unusual, said one of the Americans.
"The problems are still there," said Ali Ahmad Jalali, a former Afghan interior minister, about the country's security forces. "But during the past two or three years, I think, the quality [of the police and army] has increased." However, he added: "More years and more investment are needed."
By the end of 2014, though, Nato hopes the handover to Afghan security control will be complete. Nato will move out of its combat role and into a training mission. This will happen last where there has been the most intense fighting, places like Kandahar and Helmand, where the surge of forces has been concentrated. "It will take time," said Mr Jalali. "2014 is reasonable but it is not guaranteed. It might not be 100% transition."Mercurial ally
So is there a firm timetable or is this a "conditions-based" withdrawal, as was repeatedly stressed in Iraq? Arriving for the Nato summit in Lisbon, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was careful to say that 2014 was a "goal", not a firm timetable. "Our goal, which is the goal set forth first by President Karzai... is to have full transition to Afghan security by 2014."
Mrs Clinton was also careful to co-opt President Karzai as a partner in this process. Days before the show of unity expected at the Lisbon summit, the Afghan leader had told the Washington Post: "The time has come to reduce military operations... to reduce the presence of, you know, boots in Afghanistan... to reduce the intrusiveness into the daily Afghan life."
What Mr Sedwill, a former UK ambassador to Afghanistan, described as a "very cordial but quite frank" exchange took place after the interview was published. No doubt such rows will be papered over in Lisbon but President Karzai has proved a frustrating, mercurial ally for the coalition. A leaked cable from the US ambassador, Karl Eikenberry, last year said that Mr Karzai was "not an adequate strategic partner".
The concerns about "governance" are just as acute at the local level. What if the end result of an effective Nato military campaign is to hand parts of Afghanistan to warlords and a narco-mafia?
These things will affect the posture of Nato troops - but only if they lead to an upsurge in violence. Then, possibly, troops might be ready to step back in. There would be quite a high threshold for such action, though. It was expected that in parts of Afghanistan, violence would continue at levels considered "eye-watering" by Western standards, said Mr Sedwill. "The real issue is will there be an insurgency around which is an existential threat to the state, which is the case now in parts of the country."
So, the Afghanistan of 2015 will probably remain a violent and dangerous place. Nato generals do not talk about "victory" any more. The Taliban may not be defeated by then - they may even be part of the government. But if the violence is at a level that can be left to the Afghan security forces, Nato will consider that it has done its job - and the troops will start coming home.