Abandoning Afghanistan

When Senator Barack Obama was running for president back in 2008, he accused the Bush administration, his opponent Senator John McCain, and their supporters of taking their eyes off the ball by fighting a war in Iraq and ignoring the “necessary war”—the war in Afghanistan. Well, four short years later, by Obama’s lights, Afghanistan is no longer the necessary war but a war to be ignored, a war to be “ended” regardless of the strategic consequences of doing so precipitously.

A firefight in Helmand province: Three U.S. soldiers and one Afghan soldierA firefight in Helmand province: Three U.S. soldiers and one Afghan soldierAP Photo / Pier Paolo Cito

It’s now clear that Barack Obama’s only abiding interest in Afghanistan was rhetorical, allowing him political space to pull American troops out of Iraq as soon as possible and, once done, to begin the same process in Afghanistan. Even the surge of 30,000 more American troops that began in 2010 was, in hindsight, intended to be less a strategic game-changer (as the earlier surge in Iraq had been) than a stopgap measure to stabilize a deteriorating situation. Smaller than what had been requested by the generals on the ground and put fully in place for only one fighting season, the surge allowed the president to appear serious while, in fact, providing him cover for pulling the plug on the war effort altogether.

Make no mistake, pulling the plug he is. Despite internal Pentagon reports that indicate the Afghans will not be ready to take over combat operations in 2014, news accounts have the White House pushing for cutting the remaining 68,000 American troops in Afghanistan this coming year by another 20,000 to 30,000, with the likely goal of leaving fewer than 10,000 noncombat troops in place by the end of 2014. This is not just a race to the exit but a full-out sprint. And once again it’s a decision made against the best advice of the commanders in the field, who would like nothing more than to hold the current force levels constant through at least the 2013 fighting season.

None of this should come as a surprise. Since early in his presidency, when deigning to speak at all about Afghanistan, President Obama has said little about why defeating the Taliban is important. When he does make reference to Afghanistan, it’s invariably to talk of timelines for bringing the troops home or, as he said at the U.N. in September, ending the war “on schedule in 2014.”

Of course, saying the war will end on schedule doesn’t make it reality—a fact Afghans know all too well. With the Taliban on their heels but not defeated, Pakistani intelligence releasing incarcerated Taliban back onto the streets, roadmaps being drawn up for “peace talks” that would allow hardcore Taliban officials into Afghan governing posts, and Obama administration plans to eliminate funding for some 100,000 Afghan security forces after we leave, it’s no wonder arms sales in Afghanistan are booming—not only for warlords who control local militias but also for ordinary citizens. “Whenever you turn on the TV or radio,” said one Afghan, “the discussion is 2014. .  .  . It’s become like doomsday for Afghans.”

“By repeatedly discussing withdrawal dates,” according to Ronald Neumann, former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, “the Obama administration has only made matters worse.” With virtually all American troops gone in 2014 and local forces not ready to take over, Afghans rightly fear the potential chaos that might follow. “This fear,” Neumann says, “has encouraged Afghan leaders from Karzai on down to hedge their bets and do whatever they can to assure their survival. Rather than fighting corruption, they are tightening their patronage linkages, preparing for civil war, and trying to make or steal as much money as possible in the event they need to flee.” If this sounds like a state headed toward Hobbes’s “war of all against all,” that’s because it is.

The tragedy is that this needn’t be the case. As limited an effort as the surge in Afghanistan has been, it’s had real success. In Helmand and Kandahar, previously key Taliban strongholds, American, Afghan, and allied forces have cleared insurgent bastions and defeated every attempt by the Taliban over the past year to regain their lost territory. But because the administration was determined to go “light” on the number of surge troops and then draw them down more rapidly than had been recommended by commanders, the original plan to tackle simultaneously the insurgent presence in Afghanistan’s eastern provinces was never executed. Now, with the anticipated drawdown of the remaining troops over the next year, a full-on counterinsurgency effort in that region will never take place. In short, the insurgent cancer was going into remission but the White House, irrationally, wants to stop treatment.

Nor is it the case that Afghan security forces have not stepped up their game. When partnered with American and allied combat forces, Afghan troops have learned their trade and begun to fight well. However, they still lack the logistics, intelligence, and mobility capabilities needed to go it alone. Sustaining our combat and support efforts for just a few more years would ensure that when our combat teams do leave Afghanistan, there is a force in place that can effectively defend its own homeland.

Critics of the war like to point out that the Afghan conflict is the longest overseas war in American history—implying that it’s a hopeless case. Yet, for much of that time, the effort in Afghanistan was a holding action, with the war in Iraq eating up time, resources, and energy until the American surge and change in strategy in 2006-07 turned that conflict around. The nation might well be tired of war, but it’s only been a little over three years since President Obama announced his own surge and new strategy. When it comes to counterinsurgencies, a little patience goes a long way.

But this is not a patient president. The pattern for Iraq, Libya, and now Afghanistan has been basically the same. End American military involvement as soon as possible, and damn the consequences.