Obama adopted the COIN strategy, quite explicitly, as a test. He was convinced that, given the stakes, it was worth a try. But he made it very clear that his commitment would not be open-ended. One precondition of COIN’s success is that the “host government” (in this case, led by President Karzai) institutes reforms, which will attract the loyalty of its people. The U.S. military can help give the local government some “breathing space,” so it can clean up its act without pressure. But the rest is up to that government.
The critical fact is that, by and large, we’ve done our part, but Karzai hasn’t done his. The U.S. military (increasingly with Afghan counterparts coming along) has made considerable progress on the tactical military front. But the Afghan government hasn’t followed through—hasn’t provided services, hasn’t cleaned up its corruption, in short hasn’t given the population’s fence-sitters much reason to turn away from the insurgents (who exploit real grievances) and pledge allegiance to the government.
That being the case, there’s only so much a foreign army can do.
Another problem has been the insurgents’ ability to maintain sanctuaries across the porous border with Pakistan, often with the blessings of Pakistani officials. From the beginning, the top U.S. military leaders—including Petraeus, McChrystal, and Adm. Mike Mullen, then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—said publicly that, unless something was done about those safe havens, the military campaign would have its limits.
Obama gave his Afghan surge 18 months to make real strategic progress. (That was how long all of the 30,000 extra troops would be deployed.) On the crucial issues—basic services, corruption, the sanctuaries across the border—little progress was made.
And now, the CIA’s latest National Intelligence Estimate, coordinated with all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies, calls the war a stalemate.* A leaked NATO report, based on 27,000 interrogations of 4,000 Taliban and other captives, portrays an insurgency whose fighters are convinced they’re winning.
Meanwhile, U.S. and allied casualties continue to mount. In a growing number of cases, secret insurgents within the Afghan army have been killing their own trainers. This is a diabolical tactic, designed to sow distrust between allied and Afghan soldiers just as they’re interacting more and more. But it works. Last week, after a rogue Afghan soldier killed four unarmed French trainers, President Nicholas Sarkozy announced he was pulling out all French troops a year ahead of schedule.
And why not? If this was the only problem the counterinsurgents were having, it could be managed. But on top of all the other problems, including the fact that the political preconditions for success seem as far-from-fulfilled as ever, well, then, it’s perfectly reasonable to cut losses and bail.
Obama isn’t quite bailing. American troops will be on the ground for some time to come. But the page has turned. If we didn’t have troops in Afghanistan already, the present conditions would hardly justify sending tens of thousands there. And, while we shouldn’t expect those whose land we occupy to love us for our assistance, we should at least have the same basic interests as the government that our troops are fighting and dying to uphold—and that doesn’t seem to be the case either.
There are risks in this move, political and strategic. If we pull out combat forces and the Taliban plow through the purely Afghan defenses, reoccupy cities, and take over the government, then Obama will be accused of “losing Afghanistan.”
Quite aside from Obama’s fate, what might be Afghanistan’s? Al-Qaeda may no longer be much of a menace, but that’s largely because of the U.S. presence there. The Taliban seem not to be aligned with the remaining fragments of al-Qaeda or with the Pakistan-based Haqqani network, but the Haqqanis in particular could exploit a power vacuum. If no peace accord can be reached in the next year, civil war may well resume. (This is one reason even Karzai is now seeking a deal with insurgents, though it’s unclear why they would make one if they think they’re going to win anyway.) Or maybe the neighboring countries will step in; several of them have a more vital interest in preventing a flare-up in violence, or an expansion of Pakistan, than we do.
It’s a mess, but it would be a mess, whether we stayed for one year, two years, or 10. So why not make it one year, push hard, hope for the best, then stop spending lives and money on a lost cause? As George Aiken might have said, nothing else has worked.
Correction, Feb. 2, 2012: The story originally put the word "stalemate" in quotation marks, but in fact the NIE does not contain the word. It was a paraphrase of another news story. (Return to corrected sentence.)