There is a potential revolution in the making going on within America’s Afghanistan policy, and it’s not emanating from where you might think.
Instead of the White House pushing the American military to change its approach and to change its tactics — which is something that Democratic presidents have traditionally embraced throughout American history — it’s the armed forces that are now starting to take that role. The issue in question is none other than Afghanistan, where whole squadrons of junior officers are lobbying the president hard on his July 2011 pullout date. “Too fast and too soon,” say these military leaders. “Don’t abandon Afghanistan like you did in the early 1990s. Don’t withdraw American forces while the Afghan Security Services are still weak and ineffectual. But most of all Mr President, please refrain from terminating a war policy that has yet had the chance to prove itself.”
In more ways than one, the marines and soldiers voicing this opinion are absolutely right. When President Barack Obama spoke at West Point last December and announced his decision to send an additional 30,000 troops into Afghanistan, most in the audience assumed that the current administration was unveiling a brand new strategy to curtail the Taliban and turn the situation around.
The brand new strategy was called counterinsurgency, an approach that combines the traditional aspect of killing the enemy with the untraditional task of building local governance, promoting economic development, and showing the local population that the United States and the Afghan government were a better alternative to the Taliban. “Winning hearts and minds,” is the catchphrase that Washington has used to describe counterinsurgency, but the strategy is actually much more complicated than that. It’s more like “winning hearts and minds,” sustaining a relentless campaign of violence toward the insurgency, and swallowing your tongue when local residents frustrate your efforts.
Yet seven months later, the situation in Afghanistan is still dire. Hundreds of insurgents have been killed by coalition forces, but the thousands more are still strong enough to coordinate attacks in every corner of the country. Afghan President Hamid Karzai remains an unreliable American partner at best, and large portions of his government are still occupied by corrupt figures. Little headway has been made with the training of Afghan police, despite Washington’s hope that there would be close to 130,000 cops on the beat by July 2011. And America just experienced its deadliest month in the nearly nine-year old war, with 66 American soldiers killed in action by small arms fire, roadside bombs, and suicide attacks.
As a consequence, lawmakers in Congress are getting a little antsy. Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House, is demanding that the Obama Administration stick with its timetable of withdrawal, and an increasingly high number of House Democrats are questioning the very notion of funding the soldiers that are already in the warzone. As Eric Schmitt, Helene Cooper, and David Sanger wrote in The New York Times, more than a third of the Democratic caucus voted against financing the war, sending a clear signal to Obama that his own party is distancing itself from the entire effort. In other words, Afghanistan in 2010 looks a lot like Iraq did back in 2006: violent, desperate, and a place where hope is in short supply.
Will Obama cave into pressure in order to appease his own party on the war? Or will he listen to a growing number of commanders that are asking the president to give the military more time to make the counterinsurgency strategy work? These are the important questions that will not only determine the course of the war, but also America’s credibility in South Asia well into the future. Afghans and Pakistanis still distinctly remember how the United States packed up and left after its covert intervention against the Soviet Union ended in 1989. The result of that departure was nothing short of a long and brutal civil war in Afghanistan, culminating in the rise of a Sunni fundamentalist movement that drove the United States back into the country twelve years later.
American generals want to get Afghanistan right. But they cannot kill Taliban, beef up a central Afghan government, pave roads, and build schools all before the summer of next year. The mission should be given more time to fulfill these objectives. Otherwise, the United States should either ditch counterinsurgency for a more limited counterterrorism plan, or get troops out altogether.