President Obama flinched. Last night, he announced his decision to begin rapidly unwinding his Afghan surge. Of the 30,000 additional troops committed, Obama wants 10,000 out by the end of this year and the rest out by the end of next summer. This risks giving back to the Taliban all that’s been won over the last year with blood, sweat, and tears.
The dominant prism through which the Afghan war is viewed in our political debate is futility. If that were the correct way to look at it, our troops would have arrived in the south of Afghanistan and foundered in the “graveyard of empires.” Instead, they routed the Taliban from its strongholds in Kandahar and Helmand provinces, where it had come to expect no serious challenge. A front-page New York Times article reported how the Taliban had been reduced to tiny bands and how it had failed so far to regain its footing despite desperately trying to fight back. The boys in the Quetta Shura must be delighted at the opening President Obama is handing them.
Last night, the president couched the drawdown in terms of the successes we’ve had, most spectacularly the killing of Osama bin Laden. But this is almost a non sequitur. The surge forces weren’t sent into the south to kill or capture bin Laden. As we proved, that could be done with a handful of Navy SEALs making a raid into Pakistan. The surge forces have been seeking to beat back the Taliban to keep it and its al-Qaeda allies from taking over the south, then hold the territory, and eventually hand it over to Afghan forces as their proficiency and numbers increased. The goal of the United States and NATO was to complete this mission by the end of 2014.
President Obama’s decision could render all of this moot as he opts for a “half-Biden.” The vice president had advocated a counterterrorism mission rather than a war of counterinsurgency in Afghanistan — i.e., drone strikes and the like, rather than boots on the ground to hold territory. He lost the initial debate, but Obama is now siding with him, although very belatedly. Many of our troops have already died gaining ground in Afghanistan, and 70,000 will remain there even after the withdrawal of the surge forces. This still represents a counterinsurgency footprint in Afghanistan, but one that may not be large enough to succeed.
Perhaps 10,000 troops doesn’t sound like a lot. But our troops are already stretched thin in the south, and that is before they have even attempted to pacify the east, where the extremely dangerous Haqqani network is dominant. There aren’t troops to spare, unless we abandon areas we’ve recently captured. And removing all the surge forces by the end of next summer — in other words, before the end of the next fighting season — means that the Taliban may need only to bide its time for about year, and that the Haqqani network may never get its reckoning.
There’s a reason Gen. David Petraeus opposed this kind of drawdown and that, apparently, no general supported it. When Pres. George W. Bush went over the heads of some of his brass to order the surge in Iraq, at least some other generals thought it made sense. It’s Obama’s prerogative as commander-in-chief to make whatever strategic judgment he deems appropriate, but the lack of military support for this decision highlights its essentially political nature. Obama’s party long ago backed off “the good war,” and the public has grown weary of all our wars.
Perhaps we’ll get lucky, and the Taliban and al-Qaeda have been so hurt that they’ll never come back. Or perhaps the Afghan forces — which have made strides over the last year — will be able to hold what we’ve taken. But we also may be headed toward a downward spiral. If our enemies have a resurgence in Afghanistan, it will embolden those forces in Pakistan that have always argued we have no staying power and that it therefore makes sense to support extremist proxies to influence Afghanistan’s ultimate fate. Our allies on the ground will be discouraged, and fence-sitters will flip to the other side. We may be able to maintain a counterterrorism campaign in the near term, but if the Afghan government senses we are losing and don’t care whether the country sinks back into chaos, it will become even less cooperative.
That government is a mess and — to one extent or another — always will be. Afghanistan is a poor, tribal society. We should have no great expectations for it. The question is whether it is fated to be ruled by (or at least provide safe haven to) the Taliban and other extremists. President Obama just made it more likely the answer to that question will be “yes.”