HISTORY WILL NOT BE DECEIVED
Contentions, June 22, 2011
“L’audace, l’audace, toujours l’audace!” To Napoleon and other great generals the willingness to be bold and audacious was the key to victory. Barack Obama is no Napoleon. He seems to believe that timidity is the key to success—that flip-flopping and triangulating can somehow convince our enemies to make nice. He is sorely mistaken, and it is our troops in Afghanistan and their allies who will pay the price for his unwillingness to back them all the way to victory.
Having ordered a surge of 30,000 troops back in 2009, Obama is now pulling the plug on the effort just when it was showing success.
During the past half year our troops had taken back large portions of Helmand and Kandahar provinces from the Taliban. They are now holding that ground against determined Taliban counterattacks. But this is only stage one of a well-thought-out campaign plan designed by Gen. David Petraeus. Stage two calls for extending the security bubble to Regional Command-East—to the treacherous, mountainous terrain where the Haqqani Network, the Taliban, and the Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin have their strongholds. By electing to pull out 10,000 surge troops this year and 20,000 more by next summer, Obama is making it virtually impossible to implement this campaign plan. He is even throwing into doubt our ability to consolidate gains in the south.
But nor is he simply opting for a counter-terrorism strategy of air strikes and commando raids as advocated by Vice President Biden. We will still have 70,000 troops in Afghanistan by the fall of 2012: too many for a purely counter-terrorist approach but too few to successfully implement a counterinsurgency strategy.
Obama is making life much more difficult for the troops that remain. He is ham-stringing them, forcing them to assume high levels of risk, and throwing into doubt their ability to accomplish the job they were sent to do—namely to create an Afghanistan strong enough to resist terrorists and insurgents. It is not just that we will now lack the troop numbers needed to secure such a vast and spread out country. We will also lose the all important element of momentum which we had gained with the surge and the ensuing counterinsurgency campaign.
When, last fall, Obama agreed at the NATO summit in Lisbon that our forces would not transition security to Afghan control until 2014, he signaled a long-term commitment. That made ordinary Afghans more willing to trust us and turn against the Taliban. With his speech [last week] he signaled hesitation, doubt, and irresolution. Why should anyone in Afghanistan, or for that matter Pakistan, trust us now? They will assume we are on the way out and therefore not worth risking their necks to help.
As usual Obama said nothing about seeking victory in Afghanistan over the Haqqanis, the Taliban, or other extremist groups closely allied with Al Qaeda. Instead he spoke above all of his desire to get out of Afghanistan. “This is the beginning—but not the end—of our effort to wind down this war,” he said.
That is all our enemies need to hear. They will now be convinced that we do not have the will to see the war through and will act accordingly.
Clearly Obama’s motivation is political–he wants the surge troops out before he must face the voters in November 2012. Certainly there is no operational reason to pull so many troops out so quickly—a step he is taking in the face of unanimous military advice to the contrary. As a short-term political ploy this may be successful. But history will not be deceived. Obama will be judged not on how quickly he pulled troops out but on what kind of country they leave behind. With his feckless announcement, he has greatly increased the possibility of a historic defeat for American forces in Afghanistan. If that were to happen, posterity will not judge him kindly.…
THE COMING AFGHAN DEBACLE
Wall Street Journal, June 28, 2011
What does it mean that the U.S. will now be withdrawing its forces from Afghanistan on an accelerated and defined timetable in order to focus, as President Obama said last week, on “nation building here at home”?
It emboldens the Taliban, which thanks to Mr. Obama’s surge and David Petraeus’s generalship had all but been ousted from its traditional strongholds in Kandahar and Helmand provinces. “My soul, and the soul of thousands of Taliban who have been blown up, are happy,” Taliban field commander Jamal Khan told the Daily Beast of his reaction to Mr. Obama’s speech. “I had more than 50 encounters with U.S. forces and their technology. But the biggest difference in ending this war was not technology but the more powerful Islamic ideology and religion.”
It increases the risk to U.S. forces in Afghanistan, where the fatality count was finally starting to come down after peaking in 2010. Fewer troops means that U.S. commanders will have to make an invidious choice between clearing territory of enemies and holding and building it for friends. “Whether it is Nangarhar or Ghazni, Kandahar or Herat, the place where we decide to ‘surge’ with remaining forces will leave a window open—and the Taliban will crawl in,” says a U.S. military official with experience in Afghanistan. “Any commander who has experienced a withdrawal under pressure knows that it is perhaps the most difficult operation you can conduct and certainly the most dangerous; it gives the attacker a feeling of superiority and demoralizes the withdrawing force.”
It strengthens already potent anti-American forces in Pakistan and weakens the hand of moderates. Skeptics of the U.S. within Pakistan’s government, particularly the army, will mark the U.S. withdrawal as further evidence that Washington is a congenitally unreliable ally. Opponents of the U.S. outside of the government will capitalize politically on the perception of American weakness. Drone strikes, which outgoing CIA director Leon Panetta has called “the only game in town in terms of confronting or trying to disrupt the al Qaeda leadership,” will likely come to an end. Islamabad will also find new reasons to patch up its differences with erstwhile allies in the Taliban and other terrorist groups as a way of keeping its options open.
It strengthens the hand of Iran, which, as the Journal’s Jay Solomon reported, “is moving to cement ties with the leaders of three key American allies—Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq—highlighting Tehran’s efforts to take a greater role in the region as the U.S. military pulls out.” As a demonstration of those ties, Iranian Defense Minister Ahmad Vahidi paid a visit to Kabul last week to sign a bilateral security agreement. “We believe that expansion of joint defense and security cooperation with Iran is in favor of our interests,” said his Afghan counterpart Abdulrahim Wardak.
It further weakens NATO, whose future is already in doubt given its inability to oust Moammar Gadhafi from Tripoli. In the last decade it became the fashion to say of the alliance that it was either “out of area”—meaning Europe—or “out of business.” Leaving and losing Afghanistan spells the latter.
It gives Hamid Karzai opportunity and motive to reinvent himself as an anti-American leader. The Afghan president is already well on his way to forging a close political alliance with insurgent leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who is believed to have given Osama bin Laden safe passage out of Afghanistan in 2001 and is wanted by the U.S. on a $25 million bounty. Mr. Karzai is said to be furious that the Obama administration made no effort to get a strategic forces agreement that would have left a residual U.S. force after 2014. “I think the reality of their complete withdrawal has struck home,” Afghan Human Rights Commissioner Nader Nadery tells the Associated Press. “Now he sees they may go and they don’t want a [military] presence here…and perhaps now he is thinking, ‘Who will protect me?’”
It accelerates Afghanistan’s barely suppressed, and invariably violent, centrifugal forces. There are already reports that the old Northern Alliance, which held out against the Taliban in the 1990s and took Kabul in 2001, may be reconstituting itself as a fighting force in anticipation of a hostile government in Kabul. This is a formula for civil, and perhaps regional, war; it is not clear what kind of “partnership” the U.S. could hope to build, as Mr. Obama promised to do, with whatever emerges from its ashes.
Finally, it signals that the United States, like Britain before it, is a waning power. In his speech last week, Mr. Obama waxed eloquent on the point that “what sets America apart is not solely our power—it is the principles upon which our union was founded.” Very true. But a nation that abandons to the Taliban those it was once committed to protect shows that it lacks power and principle alike.
At the end of “Charlie Wilson’s War,” the film quotes the late congressman saying: “These things happened. They were glorious and they changed the world.… And then we f—ed up the endgame.” To watch President Obama’s Afghan policy unfold is to understand exactly what Wilson meant.
VICTORY AND DEFEAT IN AFGHANISTAN
George H. Wittman
American Spectator, June 23, 2011
There have been many characterizations of “victory” with respect to the Afghan conflict, but none of them appears capable of being put into effect. Perhaps the reason for this is that Afghanistan is a country defined by no other purpose than to be the site of constant disagreement.
There is no central order—nor has there ever been—demanding peace. There is no single Afghan language. There is no ethnic unity. There is no modern economic dynamism other than the country’s role as a trading crossroads—and today in monetary terms that primarily means varying forms of drug production, processing, and distribution. The arable land is about ten percent and that which is cultivated is a little more than half of that. Afghanistan’s economy is predominantly subsistence level, and has been for centuries. From the Afghans’ point of view, the closest thing to victory would be just to be allowed to go about their lives with minimal interference.
President Hamid Karzai, the urbane, multilingual, pretend leader of the nation, has essentially said: “Train and equip our indigenous security forces; provide a continuing fund for reconstruction and development; declare victory, if you wish, then leave. Afghanistan will handle the rest. But please do it quickly because we really need to have all you foreigners out of here.”
The response from Washington has been: “We can’t leave until al Qaeda can’t reestablish itself in your country and we know the Taliban can not take over the country; the drug trade is eliminated or at least controlled; and the nation can be drawn together in mutual security.” In other words, the country known as Afghanistan must be reborn as a peaceful, self-sustaining entity. Of course there is little chance of that happening unless the history of the nation since the early 1800s is ignored.
Out of an approximate population of 30 million, of which about 12% live in Kabul and its environs, there are hundreds of tribes, sub-tribes, and families divided among seven principal ethnic groups. As an example, the largest ethnic group, the Pashtun, include some 60 tribes and 400 sub-tribes. The overriding allegiance of all Afghans is to their family/clan structure. This is not a base for a modern cohesive national structure unless a dominant leader arises who can bring the disparate elements together. Anyone with that ambition usually is restricted by his own ethnicity or else ends up assassinated by a rival group. This calculus is the basis for continuing internal competition and combat between and among the various partisan elements. The Taliban originally came to power in that environment.
Purportedly, General David Petraeus had submitted several options for withdrawal to the White House. President Obama also had recommendations from his own political advisors. It is certain that Gen. Petraeus would have loaded his options to provide ample military cover for withdrawal. Nonetheless he knew that Obama also would weigh his own political advantages in making a decision. This does not make for the best possible military strategic situation to evolve, but guarantees that troops would be withdrawn in a manner that satisfies White House re-election politics.
A mantle of pseudo-military science has been placed over the issue of withdrawal from Afghanistan. The terms counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism have become the shorthand for differing types of continuing involvement of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. One concept, counter-insurgency, takes more military forces than the other. But the other attacks this theme of “pacification” by limiting action to political/military target-specific operations. Field-experienced observers know that one actually does not exclude the other. In any case when the self-serving rhetoric is stripped away, the actual result is that troops are being removed before a definitive result has been obtained.…
Obama is now in full obfuscation mode as he struggles with the domestic political problem of attempting to run for reelection while at the same time justifying his espousal of what he termed “the real war.” That war he effectually now seeks to end by bringing the Taliban into a “unity” government in Kabul. In other words, he would seek to turn a defeat into a victory simply by altering the characterization of the original aim.
The entire concept of truly defeating the Taliban has been based on denying these forces a sanctuary in Pakistan. This strategy has evolved as politically and militarily impossible—certainly in the current time frame. What President Obama’s intention now appears to be is to turn Afghanistan over to Pakistan as their problem. And how, Mr. President, do you think the increasingly influential pro-Taliban political forces in Pakistan will deal with that?
LETTER FROM KABUL:
FEAR AND ABANDONMENT IN AFGHANISTAN
Foreign Affairs, June 26, 2011
U.S. President Barack Obama’s June 22 speech on withdrawal from Afghanistan made an already tense situation on the ground tenser. He called for an accelerated withdrawal of 33,000 U.S. troops from the country over the next year. The Afghan National Army (ANA) and the Afghan police are stronger than they were before the U.S. troop surge, he said; Afghans have returned to markets and other public places; and women are starting to seize new opportunities to get an education or a job. But where Obama touts success, Afghans see fragility.
In fact, most striking for Afghans, Obama’s speech was not about “transition,” the euphemism for withdrawal the United States typically favors, but about abrupt disengagement, with no convincing commitment to seeing Afghanistan through to peace. The speech was clear on the plan to bring U.S. troops home but vague on the specifics of how to leave behind a stable Afghanistan, beyond asserting that the Afghan government would now have to take the lead. But Afghanistan’s weak government and embattled president do not inspire confidence. Afghans seem convinced that the country will relapse into all-out civil war after the United States withdraws.
Many Afghans understandably fear for their lives. During a large international development agency’s recent meeting in Kabul, an Afghan employee asked “What is the plan for evacuating local staff when the United States withdraws?” Amid charts illustrating dwindling aid deliveries, she foresaw Kabul becoming another Saigon.…
Afghan President Hamid Karzai often declares the country ready to manage its own security. He even routinely threatens to limit NATO’s operational freedom by preventing troops from targeting private homes, allegedly to avoid civilian casualties, despite intelligence suggesting that some are serving as Taliban safe houses. His bluster has some appeal for Afghans who take pride in never having been defeated by foreign invaders. But, in essence, most Afghans see his rants as delusional. They know that the government is not ready to guarantee their security. Ethnic divisions and seasonal attrition plague the ANA and corruption, illiteracy, and drug abuse plague the police.
Moreover, Afghans are concerned about the economic losses that will come with the U.S. withdrawal. They realize that the country’s strong growth rate is fleeting, mostly a reflection of the billions of dollars and huge quantities of goods shipped into the country to maintain the foreign forces stationed there and heaps of development aid. The armies will take their money with them when they leave and development aid is already on the decline. In 2010, the U.S. Department of State and USAID spent $4.2 billion, but the budget was reduced to $2.5 billion for 2011 and is expected to dwindle even further in the coming years.
For the Taliban, of course, the United States’ upcoming withdrawal is no “drawdown from a position of strength,” as Obama called it. In their public reactions to the speech they used an evocative term, farar, to describe the Americans as “running away” from defeat. Although clearly Taliban propaganda, the idea is not entirely farfetched. In recent months, the Taliban have reclaimed territory in the wild eastern province of Nuristan and they continue to wage a countrywide campaign against district governors and chiefs of police. They also continue to perpetrate frequent suicide attacks in the capital and the country’s south and east, often by attackers dressed in police uniforms. They intend to show—as indeed they have shown—that they have infiltrated the Afghan National Security Forces, the institution that is supposed to provide the security that will enable the United States’ timely exit.…
If Obama were intent on alleviating some of the Afghans’ fears, he could have framed the speech differently, focusing on the number of U.S. troops left behind—in 2012, still a whopping 68,000—and the ways they will work to secure gains on the ground, however fragile. He could have talked about the billions of dollars in development aid pledged to the country and how he intends to channel the funds. But even these factors are not enough to save Afghanistan.…
With Obama’s speech, the United States signaled that it is not in Afghanistan to stay. What is important, then, is to be clear about what the United States commits to delivering on the way out—in terms of money, security, and the creation of a sustainable future. The administration has so far avoided defining what success in Afghanistan actually means and it cannot be vague any longer. There is much confusion on the ground, and the Afghan girls and women attending school and the others sacrificing their lives fighting against the insurgency deserve a straight answer as much as the people in the United States do.