On 60 Minutes last night, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was remarkably optimistic about the war in Afghanistan. Essentially, he stressed that the American offensive against the Taliban had driven them out of the populated areas and that the process of attrition had set the conditions for possible reconciliation, meaning a negotiated settlement. I fervently hope the secretary is correct and that he has been shown data not made public to the rest of us. I would suggest a few points for consideration.
1. Have we turned a corner? On May 15, Secretary Gates said: “We’ve turned a corner, because of the Taliban being driven out and kept out.” At a heavy cost, U.S. Marines have driven the Taliban out of Helmand. However, that is only one southern province, while in the north the coalition has been driven back. The Taliban remain ubiquitous. The evidence is the continuous emplacement of thousands of IEDs, which requires tens of thousands of Taliban supporters.
2. Our strategy keeps changing. Gates has appointed four successive commanders in Afghanistan. Each claimed victory for his own strategy. Last year, Admiral Mullen said our troops were nation-building; this year, Mr. Biden says our troops were not nation-building. A year ago, Gates said the U.S. strategy was counterinsurgency; now, it is killing Taliban. Why the most recent change? Because the counterinsurgency strategy was based on giving billions of dollars to the Pashtuns, who were supposed to reciprocate by rejecting the Taliban. That strategy created in a culture of entitlement among the Pashtuns. We gave them money, and they let us do the fighting.
3. Unproven projection of future success. Gates: “We have put in place the resources to ensure the threat does not reemerge once we’re gone.” But once we’re gone, we cannot prevent the Taliban from reemerging, because Pakistan remains a sanctuary. The Pashtuns remain convinced their Taliban cousins will return after we leave. Then the real fight will begin.
4. Americans are expected to continue in the lead for another three years. Gates: “Expand the security envelope.” But as long as U.S. leaders place American soldiers in the lead, the Afghans will let us do the fighting and dying for them. On the positive side, the Taliban, with threadbare logistics, cannot seize major centers in the face of US air. On the negative side, the math of “expanding the security bubble” is daunting. The coalition has 1,000 outposts to control 7,000 Pashtun villages. 9th Century tribes are happy to fight American infidels for the next hundred years.
5. Beware the hastily negotiated end. Gates: “Military pressure could create the circumstances for reconciliation.” Reconciliation? Why are we fighting, if — unlike al-Qaeda — the Taliban are not a terrorist threat to U.S.? An opaque, face-saving deal will signal that a decade of fighting was not necessary and will embitter a generation of U.S. troops, as did Vietnam.
Conclusion: We need to focus on one overarching goal: Place a reasonably confident Afghan army at the front, costing $12 billion per year for the next decade, and replace our combat battalions with a U.S. adviser corps of about 25,000. Provide these advisers with incentives (extra pay or promotion) to undertake a frustrating job. No strategy is risk-free, either in the stock market or on the battlefield. But on balance, it’s time to begin a quiet withdrawal of our combat units. It’s not our war to fight if the Taliban are not a threat to the U.S.