Among the many (immense) challenges of counterinsurgency warfare is understanding what — exactly — is going on. The message from the president can be boiled down to two words: Trust me. Trust him that the Afghan version of the surge has accomplished its aims. Trust him that the Afghan army will be ready for the transition. Trust him that the withdrawal decision was made for sound military (and not political) reasons.
We have to trust because we know so little. I can remember being shocked in 2007 — when I arrived in Iraq and finally saw real information about the state of the war — at the gap between my supposed knowledge and the actual on-ground reality. Even the best reporters wrote about Iraq with barely-informed suppositions. I served with better-informed suppositions, but no certainties. I had an avalanche of information available at my fingertips, but it wouldn’t tell me if the Iraqi police officers next to me or the Iraqi soldiers at the checkpoint down the road would fight if we weren’t beside them. All the PowerPoint slides in the world (and believe me, the U.S. Army can, in fact, generate all the PowerPoint slides in the world) wouldn’t tell me if our hard-won progress would endure.
We could make educated guesses. We could beat down the enemy until it seemed that its very spirit was cracking. But we couldn’t know the future. Unlike allied soldiers standing in the rubble of Tokyo, we couldn’t know if our gains were temporary.
At some point we had to take a risk. The Iraqi Army and Iraqi Police had to go out, fight, and risk defeat. They had to walk on their own. Let them go too soon and they fail. Wait too long and the sense of dependence is cemented and separation becomes that much more difficult. What is the proper balance in Afghanistan? I don’t know, and I’m not sure any living person has a definite answer. But one thing is clear: We will begin taking that risk in Afghanistan within the next year.
In the final analysis — and whether we like it or not — our commander-in-chief has made his call. Our soldiers do their duty. Our civilian citizens hold him accountable for the results.