After a year and a half of commentary and speculation about how many troops the his administration would be moving from Afghanistan, President Barack Obama broke all doubt by outlining his plans to the American people for the next two years of the conflict. All surge troops will be out of Afghanistan by September 2012, with the first 10,000 soldiers leaving their bases over the next few months.
Despite a relatively short speech, Obama’s remarks were clear and consistent with his overall war strategy. The war has always been about making Afghanistan “good enough,” or stabilizing the country to the point where terrorists like Al Qaeda could never again use it to launch further attacks against the American homeland. Evidently, Obama sees that goal nearing its completion after eighteen months of offensive operations. With the death of Osama bin Laden, Al Qaeda Central is now at its weakest point since the start of the War on Terror nearly ten years ago.
Like Al Qaeda, the Taliban have been hit hard, if not harder, over the past year. Helmand and Kandahar Provinces, the birthplace of the Islamist movement, are now no-go zones for many of its fighters. Kandahar City is a much safer place, with shops reopening, confidence in the local government increasing and opposition to the insurgency growing. And while the Taliban still has the capacity to conduct assassinations on Afghan government and security personnel, the movement’s rank and file have been demoralized by an ramped up “kill or capture” program, courtesy of American conventional troops and Special Operations Forces.
With 30,000 soldiers now counting down their days in theater, the question becomes whether those military gains will be held and built upon once responsibility for security is transferred to the Afghan army and police.
The Brooking Institution’s Michael O’Hanlon doesn’t think so, especially if all American surge forces are withdrawn in the middle of next summer’s fighting season. Brookings fellow and Washington Post commentator Robert Kagan goes two steps further by labeling Obama’s troop drawdown as a clever political ploy to win votes in the next election season. Max Boot, a national-security fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, adds his two cents to the mix, arguing that the withdrawal schedule jeopardizes military gains made over the past eighteen months and throws a wrench into the commander’s plans for eastern Afghanistan in 2012-2013.
Yet what all three of these smart guys seem to forget is that the Afghan war is no longer about destroying the Taliban insurgency, nor is it about extending the writ of the Afghan government. Counterinsurgency may have worked in Iraq during the long haul (although the verdict on that war is still out); the same concept has proven to be virtually impossible in the Afghan context given the 2014 deadline. Better yet, COIN has essentially become a convenient excuse to escalate the conflict in the hopes of leaving Afghanistan on a high note and magically bringing Mullah Mohammed Omar out of his Pakistani hideout waving a white flag.
NATO has achieved a lot over the last year and a half, indeed far more than President Obama could have expected when he announced his surge policy in December 2009. But the same time period has also resulted in a higher price in American blood and treasure and the deaths of thousands of Afghan civilian casualties. Domestic support for the war effort has been teetering below 50 percent for quite some time. The list of lawmakers in the president’s own party who are demanding further troop reductions is growing longer as the war draws on. The Republican Party, traditionally the backbone of Washington’s national-security establishment, is now divided among itself over the issue, with some pushing for a quicker withdrawal and others vowing a “stay the course” strategy. Republican presidential contenders for the 2012 election are divided about what the right policy is.
The American people, in short, are tired of the war. Neglecting to take all of these variables into consideration, alongside the recommendations of military commanders, would be a huge mistake for a president who vowed to shift American resources back home.
Taliban leaders can be killed, territory can be seized and held, and institutions can be built, but all of these goals will take years, if not decades, to achieve in a country whose political system is based more on patronage than Western style checks and balances. If the United States had unlimited resources, a meager national debt, a raging surplus, and a public determined to see the war through, then perhaps the military could sustain the Afghan mission indefinitely. Unfortunately, none of these conditions are available at the present time.
However hard NATO tries at a military solution, defeating the Taliban in the conventional sense cannot be done, not because of a lack of effort, but because of a Pakistani safe haven across the border and an Afghan government unable to govern all of its provinces and districts effectively. Ten years into war, the United States are once again focused on the threat — Al Qaeda — that led them there in the first place.
The Taliban, a nationalist movement, can be contained with the right mix of punishment and incentives. Al Qaeda, a movement that preaches a jihadist ideology that transcends national borders, cannot be contained with the same tools. Good intelligence work, healthy diplomatic relations, dedicated soldiers and a resilient first strike capability will.
After ten years in Afghanistan, American political leaders have come to the realization that the fight against Al Qaeda — the real national-security interest of the United States — can be continued without rebuilding a state and reconstructing an entire society.