Writing in July 2008, retired United States Army General Barry McCaffrey, a Gulf War veteran and critic of the initial American strategy in Iraq, assessed the war in Afghanistan and concluded the following.
- “Afghanistan is in misery.” Life expectancy is low and violence and crime are rampant. At the time, McCaffrey expected Afghan governance to worsen at least until the summer of 2010.
- An enormous majority of the Afghan people reject the Taliban but have little faith in the government’s ability to provide them with security and jobs. They do trust the foreign forces but are suspicious about their long-term commitment.
- Afghan and NATO forces are militarily superior to the insurgents but they “cannot win through a war of attrition.”
- The war has basically run into a stalemate while Afghanistan’s political elite is “focused more on the struggle for power than governance.”
- Additional forces are required to break the deadlock.
- There is no “sensible coordination of all political and military elements of the Afghan theater of operations” which is hampering the war effort.
General McCaffrey specifically called on NATO to provide more troops. International cooperation was, and is, of the utmost importance in winning the war, he wrote — more than a year ago.
In a similar finding last November, the general appeared all the more pessimistic. “The Taliban believe they are winning,” he wrote and the Afghan people “do not know who will prevail.” Their trust in the Afghan government has declined further while allied casualties have “gone up dramatically.”
There is some reason to be hopeful though. “The Afghan National Army is a growing success story,” and “ISAF is reinforcing just in time to rescue the deteriorating tactical situation.”
David Betz at Kings of War is skeptical however. He notes that none of McCaffrey’s original six concerns have really been addressed. That seems only partly true.
Yes, Afghanistan is still in a deplorable state. Civilian casualties and unemployment figures remain high while the military and ideological power base of the Taliban might well be gaining strength. They are waging a successful propaganda campaign that portrays the Taliban as a disciplined and truly Islamic alternative to the corrupt and incapable Kabul government and to the Western troops which they claim intend to occupy the country indefinitely.
President Obama attempted to counter this claim when he announced a timetable for the withdrawal of American forces; a decision that General McCaffrey thinks was the wrong one:
Our focus must now not be on an exit strategy — but effective execution of the political, economic, and military measures required to achieve our purpose.
The United States cannot appear to be “scuttling from Afghanistan,” agrees Betz. “We most definitely should, however, have our eyes on the exit and how to achieve the most seemly passage through it as is possible.” Why, yes, eventually. But right now, foreign troops are all that stand between Afghanistan and the Taliban ruling it once again.
The president’s date for the ‘beginning of the end’ will not see the immediate and complete evacuation of NATO forces. Rather, as Secretaries Hillary Clinton and Robert Gates explained on December 2 while testifying before the Senate Armed Services and House Foreign Affairs Committees, the United States is in Afghanistan for the long run — even though it will be with fewer troops
Throughout his election campaign, President Obama stressed the importance of winning the war in Afghanistan. Afghanistan, he knew, was the ground where the real War on Terror was being waged. He was right. With the recent inclusion of Pakistan in the administration’s approach to the war, the United States has the ability, and must gather the will, to defeat the forces of extremism that operate from the mountainous border region between the two South Asian states and from where they continue to threaten the stability of that entire region.