Amidst spiraling deficits and scandals such as those involving Solyndra and Fast and Furious, it is sometimes easy to forget what the United States is capable of achieving. This is something that repeatedly struck me during a recent week-long trip to Afghanistan with other national-security experts at the invitation of International Security Assistance Force commander Gen. John Allen.
In late October, as we witnessed a medal-pinning ceremony under a clear blue sky in a desolate corner of Kandahar Province, just miles from Taliban leader Mullah Omar’s hometown, it was impossible not to be amazed at what America’s men and women in uniform are bringing about, with great personal sacrifice, more than ten years after the start of Operation Enduring Freedom.
The three soldiers being honored were lined up in front of rows of their comrades at a small combat outpost surrounded by Hesco barriers. Their lieutenant colonel outlined their feats in combat. Two had displayed courage as their unit was ambushed, putting themselves at risk as they dragged their wounded comrades and the bodies of the dead to safety. The third was severely wounded in a different incident and sent back to the United States, only to recover and insist that he be allowed to return to his unit.
In recent months, despite suffering significant casualties, the members of Task Force Spartan from the 3rd Brigade, 10th Mountain Division, have cleared Taliban-infested areas of Kandahar. Villagers are now free to walk the streets of Omar’s hometown as he likely cowers across the border in Pakistan. Young children ran up to our group, roughhoused with U.S. forces, and posed for pictures in an area in which, just months ago, it would have been unsafe for them (or us) to venture outside.
Spending time with America’s soldiers and Marines in Afghanistan, I recalled Winston Churchill’s words to the British Desert Army in 1943: “And when history is written and all the facts are known, your feats will gleam and glow and will be a source of song and story long after we who are gathered here have passed away.”
The recent achievements of our armed forces in Afghanistan are nothing short of extraordinary. Signs of the progress enabled by the surge in forces President Obama announced in December 2009 were everywhere we visited — from Kandahar, where the soldiers of Task Force Spartan have cleared away the Taliban; to remote sites in contested areas, where Army Rangers live among the Afghan people; to Helmand Province, where we spent time with the 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines, who have stabilized towns such as Marjah and are giving the people a chance at a better life.
The surge has created the space for these gains, but to consolidate and maintain them, we should ensure that troop levels are not decreased again until the planned transition to Afghan forces in 2014. Success in the south of Afghanistan is already being put at risk because of the so-called surge recovery that President Obama announced in June, which will result in the drawdown of 33,000 troops by the end of September 2012. The risks were summed up by Gen. James F. Amos, commandant of the Marine Corps, who told the Associated Press, “Will it work? I don’t know. But I know we’ll do our part.” These reductions will make it more difficult eventually to shift the campaign’s focus to areas in the east that are increasingly restive, as the military has planned to do. Our commanders are doing their best to limit the impact of the drawdown, but it will be essential that we maintain the post–surge recovery force level of 68,000 troops until 2014.
Unfortunately, recent press reports suggest that, at a NATO summit to be held in Chicago in May, the White House may announce that further troop reductions are to take place, in 2013. President Obama hinted as much during his October 21 announcement that all U.S. forces would be withdrawn from Iraq by the end of 2011, saying, “We’re beginning to bring our troops home from Afghanistan, where we’ve begun a transition to Afghan security and leadership. When I took office, roughly 180,000 troops were deployed in both these wars. And by the end of this year that number will be cut in half, and make no mistake: It will continue to go down.”