Obama Declares Victory in Afghanistan Because No One Has a Better Idea

Military analysis.
Feb. 2 2012 6:03 PM

Did Obama Just Declare Victory in Afghanistan?

Why not? Nothing else has worked.

US President Barack Obama addresses troops at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan December 3, 2010.
President Obama addresses troops at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan in December 2010.

Photo by Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images.

In October 1966, as the Vietnam War was spiraling out of control, Sen. George Aiken, R-Vt., now-famously suggested that we simply declare victory and bring the troops home. He added, in a less well-known coda, “It may be a far-fetched proposal, but nothing else has worked.”

Lyndon Johnson would have done well to take the idea seriously. Now it seems Barack Obama is doing just that in Afghanistan.

That’s one way to read Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s remark Wednesday that, “hopefully,” all U.S. combat troops will leave Afghanistan by the middle or end of 2013—not a year later, as had previously been announced.

Panetta let loose the news  while talking with reporters en route to Brussels, not in a formal announcement. He emphasized that this drawdown would be a transition, not a withdrawal. There will still be U.S. troops in Afghanistan to advise, assist, and train local security forces, at least through 2014, as the NATO members had decided at a conference in Lisbon 15 months ago.

White House and Pentagon spokesmen, apparently caught off-guard by Panetta’s comment, waved it away as nothing new. Rather, they said, it simply specified the pace at which the United States would carry out the longstanding plan to draw down forces and transfer combat operations to the Afghans. They hastened to add that Panetta said this timetable would “hopefully” be followed; it could be changed.

What does this all mean? A few inferences can be drawn with fairly high confidence.

First, President Obama really is getting out of there. Last June, he announced that he would withdraw 10,000 troops by the end of the year (which he did) and another 23,000 by the following summer (which—bet a lot of money on this—he will). That will leave 68,000 troops in Afghanistan this fall, and Obama said that the drawdown would continue at a steady pace till 2014.

At some point during this steady exit, there won’t be enough American troops to conduct effective combat operations, except perhaps along the Pakistani border, where fighting has tended to be fiercest. So it makes sense that most of the remaining troops would shift to an “advise and assist” role, especially since—in tandem with the U.S. drawdown—Afghanistan’s army will be taking more of a lead role in staving off insurgents.

It’s unclear whether the Afghan army is ready for this transition. Panetta’s remarks no doubt send a message to President Hamid Karzai and his commanders: Get ready; this is happening, and soon.

Second, Obama and Panetta have presented this drawdown (a la George Aiken) as the product of military success. The claim is half true but also a bit disingenuous.

Yes, we have accomplished a good part of the mission: Bin Laden is dead, al-Qaeda is crumbling, the Taliban’s momentum has been halted, the Afghan army is improving. One could make the case—and Panetta, Vice President Joe Biden, and national security adviser Tom Donilon have reportedly done so with particular conviction—that U.S. interests in Afghanistan are no longer vital.

However, Obama’s pullout—and its recent acceleration—also stems from a conclusion that the U.S. war strategy hasn’t succeeded and is extremely unlikely to succeed any time soon. When Obama decided in December 2009 to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, he did so as part of a shift to a new counterinsurgency strategy, as recommended by the top commander, Gen. Stanley McChrystal (modeled in part on the strategy employed in Iraq by Gen. David Petraeus, who would later replace McChrystal). The core idea of counterinsurgency (COIN) is not so much to chase after bad guys (though it does involve some of that) but rather to protect the population—to live among the people, in their neighborhoods, and thus earn their trust, which will embolden them to provide intelligence on where the bad guys are, as the challenge in fighting insurgents isn’t killing them but finding them. But an equally important element of this strategy is to create a zone of security, so the government (with outside help) can provide basic services to the people and thus bolster their support—which will in turn dry up support for the insurgents.

Some have called this strategy “clear-hold-build”—clear an area of insurgents, hold it (i.e., stay there) so the insurgents don’t come back, and meanwhile build legitimacy for the government. One thing about this strategy is that it takes a long time, costs a lot of money, and results in a lot of casualties (at least in the short term, though it’s unpredictable how long the “short term” lasts).

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.)