The report in the Washington Post today—and it’s stunning headline, “Taliban unscathed by US strikes”—raises critical questions about the choices facing Obama going forward in Afghanistan. The Post’s key point is that US intelligence agencies have concluded that the Taliban is “maintaining its resilience,” that it has been able to “reestablish and rejuvenate,” that it replaces its killed or captured commanders “in a matter of days” or melts away safely when under concerted attack, and that the Taliban’s leadership is convinced that its winning and that “the end is near.”
This report directly contradicts rosy assessments from General David Petraeus and the military command that the United States has the Taliban reeling in Kandahar as a result of the current offensive there. My question, concerning Obama’s paradoxical escalate-and-withdraw Afghanistan strategy, is: Does it matter?
In other words, if General Petraeus’ 100,000-plus troops are succeeding, does it make a drawdown in Afghanistan more likely—or less likely?
This isn’t a random question. During the worst of the war in Iraq, the same question arose: if the 2007 “surge” succeeded in damping down violence and stabilizing Iraq, did that mean that the United States could claim victory and leave? Or did it mean that the military would argue that because the additional troops stabilized the conflict, it would be necessary to keep them there far longer in order to preserve the gains that were made?
In Iraq, in the end, violence did decrease during 2007-2008—for many reasons, including the fact that tens of thousands of Sunni insurgents switched sides and because Iran pressure Shiite insurgents to stand down. The result was the 2008 accord, signed by the Bush administration, that fixed a three-year timetable for the withdrawal of all American forces. At the time, many hawks warned that a too-rapid drawdown would jeopardize those gains, even as Obama was arguing (during the campaign) for a sixteen-month timetable for the removal of US combat forces. (On taking office, those sixteen months extended to nineteen months, until August 2009, when the last brigade of US combat forces was removed.)
On Afghanistan, here’s the question: In December, 2010, the White House has promised to review progress (or lack of it) in the war, with a view to policy going forward, including how many troops will start to leave Afghanistan next July, how fast, and on what timetable.
If Petraeus comes into that meeting arguing that the surge is working, that the Taliban is on the run, and that Afghanistan’s rebellious provinces of Kandahar and Helmand are being pacified, what does that mean for Obama’s strategy? Does it mean that the president can say, “Okay, we’ve kicked butt, and now we can get the heck outta there?” Or does it mean that Petraeus will argue that precisely because of these successes, the United States needs to hang in there, for the long haul, or risk a Taliban comeback?
Or, the opposite: if Petraeus, the Pentagon, and the US intelligence community come into the December review with a bleak report, admitting that the Taliban is still strong across the entire country, that neither Kandahar and Helmand are pacified, that the Afghan National Army can’t fight the insurgents even in relatively stable districts, when then? Does Obama say to the military—as implied in Bob Woodward’s latest book, Obama’s Wars—“Okay, you generals had your chance, and it can’t be done. We’re getting outta there.” Or will Petraeus argue that he needs more time, more troops, more money?
The question answers itself. Either way, whether Petraeus claims success or not, Obama can order the troops home, with a handy rationale for doing so. And either way—success or failure—Petraeus can make his case for staying. So it’s clear that the decision that Obama makes between December 2010 and July 2011 will be the result of politics and policy choices.