The end of 2014 sees ISAF's operation in Afghanistan come to an end with a support mission set to begin. After over a decade of conflict, analysts' views on the mission's successes and short-comings so far are split.
After about 13 years, operations of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, known as ISAF, will conclude at the end of 2014. For several months, international troops have been clearing their camps across the country. The majority of the soldiers and the bulk of their equipment have already been returned home.
Initially, there were the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States: A couple of weeks later the US government deployed troops to Afghanistan. Following the downfall of the Taliban regime, which had collaborated closely with Osama bin Laden, the mastermind behind 9/11, ISAF's operation started in Kabul in December 2001.
At a later stage, the mission area was extended, under NATO leadership, to the whole of Afghanistan. At the operation's peak, more than 130,000 troops from roughly 50 nations were stationed across Afghanistan. The end of the mission, which was the longest in NATO's history and also claimed the highest number of lives, raises one obvious question: Was the international engagement a success or a failure?
High expectations in 2001, cautious optimism in 2014
The operation, carried out under a United Nations mandate, set its sights high, aiming to provide stability, assist in the rebuilding of Afghanistan and democratize the country. In addition, troops were to make sure that the country would no longer be a safe haven for international terrorists.
"Together we have done what we set out to do," NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg lauded combat troops prior to their departure. "We have made Afghanistan stronger, and we have made our own nations safer. This has been a challenging mission in many aspects: militarily, politically, economically. But we have met these challenges."
Although no representative of the military alliance would claim victory, there is reason for cautious optimism: Al Qaeda leaders and training camps have disappeared from Afghanistan.
In May 2011, the terrorist network's leader, Osama bin Laden, was shot and killed by US Special Forces in Pakistan. Afghanistan's presidential election can be considered a success, too: for the first time since the overthrow of the Taliban regime in 2001, a democratic transfer of power could be accomplished. Simultaneously, progress was made with respect to Afghan nation-building as well as in the areas of infrastructure, economy, education and health system.
The envisaged number of Afghan security forces totaling 350,000 police and soldiers was eventually reached. Gradually they adopted security responsibilities from foreign troops. The Taliban and other insurgents suffered substantial losses, in particular in the wake of an increase of troop levels by the US since 2009.
But they were not completely defeated militarily. "The country is not safe," former Afghan President Hamid Karzai stated in October 2013. What's more, prior to the departure of the main contingent of the international forces reports on attacks against soldiers and police officers shake the country almost on a daily basis.
"The war isn't over yet"
"The ISAF mission hasn't solved the main problem in Afghanistan," said Thomas Ruttig, co-director of the "Afghan Analyst Network" based in Kabul and Berlin. "The war is not over yet, dismantling the Taliban came to nothing, insurgences have spread across the entire country, and since 2010 the level of violence in Afghanistan is higher than in all previous years."
More than 3,400 international coalition troops lost their lives in the course of the mission, including 55 Germans. The number of native Afghan security force members killed has risen continuously since their adoption of security responsibilities. In 2014 alone, about 6,000 Afghan troops and police officers were killed as of mid-November.
Add to that high casualty figures among Afghan civilians. In recent years, tens of thousands of men, women and children have been killed or wounded in attacks or in the course of fighting between troops and insurgents. According to the UN, there were more than 10,000 civilian casualties in 2014 alone: as of the end of November 2014, there were 3,188 civilians killed, 6,429 wounded, either the Taliban or other insurgents being responsible for three quarters of the victims.
Ruttig said the "Provincial Reconstruction Team" (PRT) strategy adopted by the West is partly to blame for the high number of civilian casualties. Military reconstruction experts deployed by the Western allies were to represent the international community in the Afghan provinces and support local administrations by, for example, buildings wells and roads, simultaneously taking care of their own protection.
"The absence of a clear dividing line between civilian and military duties is one of the reasons for ISAF's failure," Ruttig said. "Due to the limited distinction between the two the Taliban were able to keep justifying attacks on civilians as well."
What lies ahead?
What will remain after the bulk of international forces have left the country? Afghanistan ranks seventh in the annual Failed State Index published by the US think tank "Fund for Peace" (FFP). According to Transparency International, Afghanistan is one of the most corrupt states in the world. In addition, the country is the world's biggest manufacturer of opium. The German foreign intelligence agency BND recently warned of dramatic consequences of drug manufacturing for security and economy in Afghanistan.
"Proceeds generated help to finance protection networks and various armed groups, in particular the Taliban, and strengthen corruption within the country on a large scale, " a BND study said.
Whether the Taliban will succeed in re-taking control of swathes of the country after the end of the ISAF operation remains to be seen. In view of the fragile security situation and widespread corruption, some have expressed their misgivings regarding the country's stability.
Many politicians and members of the military are also concerned about a scenario similar to the situation in Iraq, which plunged back into chaos after the departure of US forces and whose troops were unable to stop the advancement of the militants fighting on behalf of the "Islamic State" (IS) terrorist organization.
"Resolute Support" following in ISAF's footsteps
By engaging themselves in the follow-on mission "Resolute Support," NATO countries providing troops aim to consolidate the progress that has been made. Within the framework of this new consultation and training mission, 12,000 foreign troops - including 9,000 Americans and up to 850 Germans - will train Afghan security forces. According to NATO sources the Taliban will no longer be able to vindicate their attacks on civilians if international forces step into the background.
With respect to the near future, "I don't know if I'm pessimistic or optimistic," US Lt. Gen. Joseph Anderson told "The New York Times." "The fact that we are in less places, the fact that there are less of us as a coalition, is obviously concerning."