It says something about America’s combat fatigue that we’re having a debate about the Afghan War utterly detached from events in the Afghan War.
It doesn’t matter that we’ve routed the Taliban from key strongholds, disrupted its safe havens in Pakistan, and drastically weakened al-Qaeda. It is taken as a given that we are failing in a pointless misadventure in the graveyard of empires.
If the war were as hopeless as advertised, the surge of 30,000 troops Pres. Barack Obama ordered in 2009 would have failed to achieve anything, let alone the successes of the past year. The Taliban are attempting with little success to fight back into their formerly uncontested territory in the south.
The New York Times reports that in Kandahar province, “Taliban commanders who have ventured back for the new fighting season were detained or chased out of the area within hours of arriving from Pakistan.” Throughout the south, “the insurgency is now mostly limited to small groups of local fighters who lay mines or carry out assassinations or suicide bombings in the cities, attacks that are more important psychologically than strategically.”
Cue the discussions in the Obama White House whether to throw this all away. When he ordered the surge, President Obama established a July 2011 deadline for beginning to pull back the additional troops. Strategically pointless and psychologically destructive on the ground, the deadline was a naked pander to the antiwar Left. Ideally, the president should ignore it.
To ask our troops to win hard-fought ground at the cost of life and limb, then hand it back to the enemy because White House politicos don’t like how the war is polling, or because the perpetually wrong Vice President Joe Biden thinks he has a better idea than our generals about how to wage it, would be stupid, feckless, and disgraceful.
Gen. Douglas MacArthur said that every military defeat can be “summed up in two words: too late.” If we begin a major pullout now, defeat in Afghanistan would be summed up by the words “too soon.”
We’re told in ominous tones that the Afghan War is already ten years old. For much of that period, though, we weren’t heavily engaged. As late as January 2009, we had 34,000 troops in Afghanistan, a third of today’s force. The counterinsurgency campaign only got fully under way the latter half of last year.
We’re told that there is no al-Qaeda safe haven in Afghanistan. True enough, but only because we are denying it one.
We’re told that our goal in Afghanistan is ambiguous and our commitment endless. Neither is true. We seek to reduce the insurgency so that Afghan forces can eventually take on the fight themselves. Together with our allies, we’ve set a goal of the end of 2014 for the transition to the Afghans — a clear, realistic endpoint for our current role.
We’re told that we can’t afford the war’s $10 billion–a–month cost. Sure, we could save something by pushing up our ultimate drawdown by roughly 12 to 18 months. But not enough to justify risking defeat.
Everyone is understandably tired of (to quote Lyndon Johnson on Vietnam) this “bitch of a war.” Afghanistan’s social terrain is daunting, and it is no doubt fated to be a poorly governed mess of a country in the best of circumstances. The question is whether it is fated to be governed or partially controlled by violent extremists allied with international terrorists.
The raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan has lent credence to Biden’s alternative strategy of a light footprint coupled with counterterrorist strikes. He’s hawking an alluring fantasy. If we effectively cede control of swathes of the country to the enemy, we will get less intelligence and an even more difficult Afghan government, as it hedges its bets between us and its resurgent enemies.
President Obama’s supporters want him to “declare victory and come home.” That’s a sound plan — when he’s achieved something like victory.
— Rich Lowry is editor of National Review. He can be reached via e-mail, [email protected]. © 2011 by King Features Syndicate.