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The Afghanistan Reckoning

As summer 2009 drew to a close, the Obama administration’s attention again returned to the failing war in Afghanistan and a resurgent Taliban. The insurgents operated in or held sway in some 30 percent of the country, up sharply from the beginning of the year. The Afghan political scene also offered little optimism, for the August reelection of Hamid Karzai to the presidency was mired in accusation of fraudulent voting practices. This harmed Karzai’s legitimacy and by extension Washington’s stake in the country. Two factors pushed the White House to confront the realities of the Afghan conflict. First and most importantly, the depressing news from the faraway country required policy changes and resources to freeze the Taliban advances.

Second, when General Stanley McChrystal was appointed as the new commander of American forces and the NATO-led ISAF in May, he was tasked by Secretary Gates to produce a strategic assessment for the Afghan theater by September. The new commander recommended fighting a classic counterinsurgency whereby foreign and Afghan military and police forces would concentrate on winning over the population to their side and to fostering loyalty between the people and central government in Kabul. Killing the enemy dropped in importance to winning hearts and minds. The new four-star general also advocated augmenting and improving the Afghan military and police units over a period of years. To act as “bridge” until the local troops and police were ready, he wanted 40,000 additional troops, most of them US soldiers for ISAF.33

The necessity to reverse the floundering, US military campaign took place against a backdrop of declining American interest in Afghanistan’s fate. A majority of Americans, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll in late 2009, held that the “war is not worth fighting.” Fifty-one percent of those polled held that view, while 47 percent still thought “the war is worth the costs.” Only 24 percent endorsed the idea of sending additional troops to the mountainous country, while nearly twice as many, 45 percent, wanted a decrease in the number of military forces. The public expressed confidence in the US military but they lost faith in the Afghans to govern themselves with an honest and competent govern- ment.34 As such, Americans signaled deepening sentiments for international disengagement, a noticeable factor in Barack Obama’s election to the presidency.

Speaking to the Veterans of Foreign Wars Convention in Phoenix, Arizona in mid-August, Obama was cognizant of his retired military audience, when he broached his timetable for withdrawal from Iraq by balancing it with a short-term boost in the Afghan War. He noted the Coalition’s turnover of control of all cities and towns to Iraq’s security forces in June. He laid out a timetable for the removal of combat brigades and then all US troops from Iraq by the end of 2011. By contrast, he recalled that the insurgency in Afghanistan “is not a war of choice. This is a war of necessity.” Not checking the Taliban insurgency “will mean an even larger safe haven from which al Qaeda would plot to kill more Americans.”35 This Afghan-first policy, however, witnessed moderation in its execution.

Before moving on General McChrystal’s request for additional military forces, the Obama administration insisted on its own strategic review of the Afghan campaign that took months.36 Unhurried, the commander-inchief met and pondered throughout the fall with the Pentagon’s top brass, cabinet secretaries, Congressional leaders, and a plethora of advisers to chart a new course in Afghanistan. The officials pored over McChrystal’s 66-page assessment and the general officer’s proposed posting of 40,000 additional troops for a classic counterinsurgency operation to protect the local population from insurgents and expand their self-defense forces to hundreds of thousands.37

That lengthy presidential review kicked off a wide-ranging debate about the correct option to pursue in Afghanistan. This policy tug-of-war involved members of the Obama administration and outside experts. Its importance lies in the fact that the discussions helped define Washington’s approach to terrorist networks beyond the Afghan-Pakistan theaters, which took root in Yemen, Syria, Somalia, Libya, and again in Iraq. The dispute centered on three military courses. The first entertained a classic counterterrorism model by which the United States fixed on eliminating al Qaeda by use of drone (unmanned aircraft) airstrikes and commando raids by SOF. These minimalist tactics relied on few military forces and even fewer bases of operation. These half-in operations spared US casualties and large financial expenditures, while still bringing to bear considerable hard power against terrorist adversaries. The reduced-scale tactics were in keeping with Barack Obama’s emerging policy of retrenchment, restraint, and cautious projection of armed might. Early on, Vice President Joe Biden backed it as a way to avoid a second Vietnam, which saw America slide down a slippery slope into a big land-war quagmire.38

The second strategy looked to scaling up the number and proficiency of the Afghan security forces. A bigger and better trained local army and police force stood as the only way to keep al Qaeda from re-basing itself in the country and re-launching terrorist attacks against the West. Defeating or at least tying down the Taliban offered the only means to stop them from granting safe sanctuaries to al Qaeda cadres. Besides, allowing the Taliban to prevail seemed to ensure that more of Pakistan would fall to its own Taliban insurgency. Almost all the experts and pundits agreed that it behooved the United States to ratchet up the size and performance of the Afghan military and police.

The third option called for pursuing classical counterinsurgency. This tack urged placing the protection of the population over the goal of just killing insurgents. It is often misunderstood as just “winning the hearts and the minds” of the people. Many military units can do this effectively by ensuring the local civilians’ safety and well-being with minimal government services, such as providing basic medical treatment and access to water and food supplies. The crucial dimension is linking the villagers’ trust to the central government to build a nation from disparate factions and provinces. This is a painstaking and time intensive enterprise. ISAF troops (US and other Coalition personnel) were required until the foreign military could stand up a large and competent Afghan army and police force. Nearly simultaneously, Afghan government and civic functions needed to be greatly enlarged while displaying conspicuous integrity and fairness.

Generals Petraeus and McChrystal favored the fully resourced counterinsurgency, calling for billions of dollars for reconstruction and institution building as well as thousands of additional troops. Proponents of a broader military presence, including the secretaries of state and defense, worried that Afghanistan stood on the brink of being lost. Hillary Clinton held that reinforcements were “the only way to get governance changes” to stabilize Afghanistan. Robert Gates believed upping the number of US forces allowed for training a stand-alone Afghan army in “three to five years is reasonable.”39 The principal holdout against deploying additional ground forces was the president. Obama pushed back against a ten-year counterinsurgency (the average length of such endeavors), a long-term commitment to nation-building, and the expenditure of a trillion dollars.40 McChrystal took the standard counterinsurgency figure of 20 security force members for every 1000 people as his yardstick. Calculating that Afghanistan had about 24 million inhabitants, he speculated that because of the severity of the insurgency the anti-insurgency effort needed at least a total of 400,000 security personnel.41

One strategy session, therefore, followed another in an extended search for the correct American prescription for an insurgency in a distant land. Money was an important consideration but troop numbers and casualties mattered more to President Obama and the American public, who recoiled at the lengthening casualty lists in Iraq and Afghanistan.42 At last, Obama announced his decision in a speech at the US Military Academy on December 1.

The president granted the Pentagon its requested manpower surge but to only 30,000 troops, not the preferred 40,000. Still, there was a pivotal catch in his offer; the personnel deployments came with deadlines. Rather than a date based on military progress on the ground, Barack Obama arbitrarily etched July 2011 in stone for the time that military forces would begin to redeploy from Afghanistan, despite the fact that the reinforcements would not completely arrive until summer of 2010. In his address to the West Point cadets, he established that by the end of 2014

US combat operations were scheduled to cease (this was later modified). Republicans led by Senator John McCain, who ran against Obama for president, noisily opposed setting an arbitrary timetable, which permitted the insurgents to wait out the expiration date. Members of the president’s Democratic Party breathed a sigh of relief with the exit dates established.

The Pentagon and McChrystal stoically soldiered on with smaller numbers and a tighter timetable than desired to battle the insurgents. As it turned out, McChrystal’s downfall preceded the withdrawal date. The four-star Army officer was forced to resign in mid-2010 because of indiscreet remarks about Obama and Biden attributed to him and some of his staff officers by a reporter from Rolling Stone magazine.43 General Petraeus moved from CENTCOM to replace him in the Afghan command. Along with the military personnel deployments, there came vast cash transfers to Afghanistan. Annually, the United States expended about $100 billion going forward on infrastructure projects, state-building efforts, and raising as well as equipping security forces nearly from scratch.

As a consequence of bad news and rising US casualties in Afghanistan, Americans lost heart in the Afghan conflict, much as had happened earlier in the Iraq War. Sixty-two percent of Americans believed the war was going badly according to a CBS News poll in July 2010, up from 49 percent two months earlier. The same poll recorded that respondents were divided about the president’s handling of the war. Forty-four percent stated disapproval of the Obama’s war management, whereas 43 percent approved.44 Public opinion of President Obama’s handling of the war continued to fall over time. Whereas in February, 48 percent of poll respondents endorsed the president’s war policy, Americans in August gave him only a 36 percent approval in a USA Today/Gallup Poll.45 The sinking poll numbers only fed the Obama administration’s keenness to hasten American’s departure from Afghanistan and to stay clear of future ground wars. Retrenchment was firmly in place in Washington.

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