Withdrawing from Afghanistan

By: Greg C. Reeson

The United States is in the early stages of a concerted effort to salvage the war in Afghanistan. A new commander has been charged with executing a fresh strategy, the number of U.S. military personnel committed to the fight is set to nearly double, air strikes by unmanned drones have expanded in frequency and scope, the training of Afghan security forces has been accelerated, and the way has been paved for a possible peace deal with the Taliban. Recently, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen declared that the U.S. has two years to turn the deteriorating situation around. It doesn’t take much imagination to believe that the United States is setting itself up for a wholesale withdrawal from Afghanistan if the salvage effort fails.

The problems in Afghanistan are numerous, and they are complex. The central government is corrupt and incapable of extending its authority outside of the capital, Kabul. The country’s infrastructure has essentially been destroyed by decades of war. The Afghan security forces are ill-equipped, ill-trained, and insufficient in number to have an appreciable impact for several more years. The NATO alliance is divided, short of manpower, and restricted by national caveats that prevent the military forces of many European nations from conducting combat operations. A porous border region allows insurgents, terrorists and criminal elements to conduct attacks within Afghanistan and then retreat to Pakistan with near impunity. Finally, the Taliban, easily removed from power by the United States in October 2001, has regained the momentum and is taking control of increasing swathes of territory while slowly building support among some segments of the Afghan population. No matter how you look at it, the United States and its NATO allies, while not necessarily losing the war, are clearly not winning it.

It is into this environment that the United States is surging troops, much like President Bush’s effort in Iraq in 2007 and 2008. But Afghanistan is not Iraq, and those looking for an Iraqi-style change in the Afghan security environment are likely to be disappointed. Afghanistan has no civil society or sense of nationalism comparable to that which existed in Iraq. The primary enemy force, the Taliban, is religiously motivated and not interested in the mere acquisition of power. They will not be driven to the bargaining table through the use of force. Protection of the population is problematic, with the ratio of military forces in Afghanistan worse than in Iraq. Counterinsurgency 101 dictates that the security of the people is the number one priority, but the United States and its allies do not have the manpower to effectively safeguard Afghan civilians.

So what’s likely to happen over the next 18 to 24 months? U.S. forces will valiantly take the fight to the enemy, attempting to clear, hold and build in areas currently dominated by Taliban militants. American and NATO casualties will inevitably increase, perhaps sharply, as is generally the case when a military force goes on the offensive. As casualty rates go up, public support in the United States, Europe and Canada, already shaky, will drop, perhaps drastically. The surge, temporary because ongoing commitments dictate that it must be, will not change the basic metrics of the war. Public support will be at an all-time low and America’s allies will be looking for a way out, if they haven’t left already. The United States, faced with a tough choice on the best way ahead, will be able to say that it has done everything that could be done. A decade of war with no tangible results makes for a compelling case for withdrawal.

When the decision to leave Afghanistan is made, and it will be made soon, the United States will be able to redeploy its forces knowing that it has achieved its original objectives. When the U.S. entered Afghanistan nearly 8 years ago, it did so with two primary goals: defeating al Qaeda and denying the use of Afghanistan as a base of operations for Islamic terrorists with global reach. Both of these goals have already been reached. Al Qaeda as it existed on September 11, 2001 is defunct. While some command capability has been regained by a few top al Qaeda leaders hiding in the Afghanistan – Pakistan border area, bin Laden and Zawahiri are in command of nothing, forced by relentless U.S. pressure to worry more about personal survival than global jihad. The real danger posed by al Qaeda today is manifested in the multitude of regional and local affiliates that have evolved since the start of the U.S. – Afghan war. There is, of course, still a danger that Afghanistan could once again become a terrorist safe haven, but that danger exists with the same degree of likelihood in multiple places around the world. A strong focus on Pakistan, the real central front in the fight against radical Islam, would allow the United States to respond to terrorist developments in Afghanistan if there was a need to do so.

Just as in Iraq, the surge in Afghanistan will be followed by a general withdrawal of U.S. military forces. It is hard to envision a scenario though, where a residual element like the one planned for Iraq is left behind to support the central government. Afghanistan has no real strategic value for the United States, and it would be a hard sell to continue a decade-long war in which Americans were dying while bin Laden remained at-large, the Taliban refused to concede defeat, and the Afghan government continued to flounder. None of the current realities are likely to change as a result of the surge. The United States has exacted its revenge for the 9/11 attacks, and the departure from Afghanistan is likely just around the corner. The question is how many Americans will die between now the time Washington decides the war is over?

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