Assessing the Afghan Withdrawal

PRESIDENT Obama’s surge decision in 2009 served as a key turning point in Afghanistan, both because it provided new troops to the mission and because it set the clock on the effort.  The more recent announcement to end the surge over the course of two years is actually less dramatic. It was forecasted in the original decision, and NATO has already set 2014-15 as the time for transition to an Afghan-led effort.  Still, this moment in time is a good point to assess the effects of the surge, consider why Obama chose this particular pattern of drawdowns, and where the mission goes from here.

Sending more troops anywhere is rarely a panacea.  Having more troops on the ground could not radically improve governance, reduce corruption, or stop Pakistan from meddling.  The troops could have been used for poppy eradication, but that would have probably caused more problems than it would have solved.  Most importantly, the surge here, as in Iraq, was aimed to provide political space for the government to get its act together.  In both cases, we got less than we wanted out of our local actors.
What the surge did allow is for the commander of the effort, General McChrystal and then General Petraeus, to move forces around and focus efforts.  They prioritized the south: Helmand and Kandahar.  While the Marja effort was much ballyhooed, it is pretty clear that more Americans in Kandahar province did make a difference.  As this has always been the focal point of the Taliban’s effort and its historical base, progress here resonates.  From my Canadian vantage point, where only Kandahar seems to matter, we can see that markets have opened, that roads have been built, and that the Taliban is, despite another big prison break, controls less terrain than before.

It is less clear whether the surge made as much of a difference in Northern Afghanistan, where the Americans have supplemented the Germans, except perhaps pushing more violence in that direction as the Taliban look for softer spots than the south. The Americans and a few allies (Poland and France) have been fighting a holding action in eastern Afghanistan.  The end of the surge means that plans to re-focus in the East will not be implemented with Americans but with Afghans (more about that below).  

Given that the quick drawdown to pre-surge levels will prevent an American shift to the east, why did Obama make this particular decision?  Simply put, the clock has expired.  The American people are tired of this war, and Obama is keeping his original commitment.  While I always scoff at the argument that this war has lasted longer than the two World Wars, as if the pace and expenses are at all comparable, much time has passed since the US got involved in Afghanistan.  This September will be the 10th anniversary of 9/11, and the need to remain in Afghanistan and in combat is less compelling both because Osama Bin Laden is dead and because there have been no successful attacks on American soil since then.  One could argue that the American people have been far more patient than one could have expected.  Just as the center of gravity of any insurgency is not some headquarters somewhere but the people in the country (Afghans in this case), the center of gravity of the counter-insurgents is always the population of the country deploying the counter-insurgents.  The Taliban have been successful in wearing down the patience of the Canadians (gone soon, except for trainers), the Dutch (gone soon, except for police trainers and F-16’s to protect them), the Belgians (just announced that they are pulling out their trainers but not their F-16’s), the Germans (who have announced a withdrawal starting this year but not ending for a couple of years a la Obama), the French, the British (out of combat by end of 2014), and the Americans.  It may be the case that the most recent prison break was not that much of a tactical success, but it had its own Tet-like effect of raising big questions about progress.  Perhaps there has been heaps of progress, but it is hard to see that from far away.

Why this size of drawdown?  It is far less than what opponents of the war would have preferred.  The military recommended only five thousand this year and a slower withdrawal of the rest of the surge.  For Obama, five thousand was clearly too token; ten thousand had more significance and meant he was keeping his promise in deeds.  That the military was not entirely pleased actually gives Obama more credibility with his political base, for making a hard decision even though the rest of the surge will remain for another fighting season and even though the other troops Obama sent in early 2009 (the pre-surge surge) will still be in Afghanistan beyond 2012.  While I would prefer to see the rest of the surge remain for a second fighting season, rather than pull out next summer, the political logic is obvious—complete the promise before the fall 2012 election.  

Should we criticize Obama for making a political decision?  Sure.  But all decisions about the deployment of forces are political, all involve risk and balancing tradeoffs.  To go or not to go, to deploy or not, to reduce or to expand—these are all political decisions, involving the balancing of commitments around the world with resources, including domestic support.  That the electoral calendar in the US matters is only surprising to the hopelessly naïve. 

The reality is that Obama’s schedule is not at all divorced from the other schedules out there: NATO’s plan to transition by 2014 and the end of Karzai’s second term at that time.  We cannot forget that NATO has already agreed with the government of Afghanistan to transition the effort by 2014/15.  By that time, the outsiders will supposedly just be doing training, but are more likely to be significantly involved in combat support (airlift, medevac, intelligence, etc.), training and advising.  
What will be the effects of the end of the surge?  Afghans are very antsy, worried about American disengagement, but Karzai has been proven to be insecure even at the best of times.  The people will not swarm to the Taliban, but may be less likely to risk their lives with intelligence tips.  Then again, the 2011 deadline in the original surge decision was supposed to have that impact.  The Taliban could play a waiting game, but again, we have not really seen that happen despite the timeline in the original decision.  

The most important question is whether the Afghan National Army is becoming capable enough to offset the departure of the surged Americans and the Dutch and the Canadians.  A big difference between 2011 and 2009 is the size of the Afghan army.  The question remains about whether this bigger army is significantly better.  They will not have to operate alone for several more years, but they will have to carry a heavier burden.  We have heard varying assessments from the field probably because some units are much more capable than others.  By the end of the American surge in October 2012, will there be thirty thousand more capable Afghan troops than there were in late 2009?  If so, then the end of the surge will not be that significant on the ground.

However, war is always partly about perception, and insurgency especially so.  The image of westerners  fleeing Afghanistan will be hard to fight.  The Afghans have learned by experience to be suspicious of the commitments made by outsiders.  Today’s question really is whether Obama’s kept promise—to end the surge when he said he would—increases or decreases the credibility of the other commitments. And that probably depends on what one wants to believe.