Obama ran so hard on his no vote (to his credit one of few) that when the effects surrounding George Bush’s surge began to push the country back from civil war, he had no choice except to continue doubting an offensive designed by his future general, David Petraeus. Perhaps he should have kept that line of thinking in sight until the present day, but once in office Obama flipped Iraq’s stability and the withdrawal it enabled into his own achievement, sparking a turf battle with former VP Dick Cheney.
As violence spiked around the August 30th deadline, Baghdad’s fragile government still two months away, Obama spent half of his “Iraq speech” on economic policy.
Now, sensitive to the 60% disapproval of his Afghan strategy and slim margin for error, Obama has locked himself away between war reviews, rarely addressing the public and never in detail. Only recently did he emerge in the friendly confines of NATO's summit, and it’s looking like the U.S., NATO, Afghan, and Pakistanis publics will receive no more than scraps come December. The White House and Pentagon started chanting “no major changes” months before Obama himself took the lead in cheerleading.
“It's a testament to the confidence we have in Gen. Petraeus's plans,” he said from Lisbon, “and the fact that we are much more unified and clear... that we are going to achieve the end state."
Rather than confront the reality that his surge is headed for a wall beyond 2012, loopholes are being blasted into Obama's strategic outline by the very commanders who assured him of July 2011 - before immediately grinding his 18-month dead-line into a nub. Few explanations will be given. In fact, the blame may be dumped on those who believe America and NATO are sinking deeper into Afghanistan without an exit. As if they "don't get it."
“There’s not really any change,” said one senior administration who downplayed the downplaying of July 2011, “but what we’re trying to do is to get past that July 2011 obsession so that people can see what the president’s strategy really entails.”
Yet many accounts outside of Washington believe U.S. policy-makers still fail to understand Afghanistan. On the ground U.S. counterinsurgency has devolved into shock and awe against the Taliban, only the target isn’t limited to them. The American people also stand in the White House and Pentagon’s line of bombardment: success in Marjah and Kandahar, insurgent shortages of bullets and cash, mounting Taliban casualties, low morale, and a fracturing leadership. All sold with the qualifier, “It’s early but signs are very encouraging.”
Would the Pentagon admit the war had stalled even if it did?
Some of Afghanistan’s latest snapshots appear decent enough. Despite major setbacks in their time-tables, operations in Marjah and Kandahar have shown indications that Afghans are willing to fight back against the Taliban. The Afghan National Army continues its steady pursuit of a 240,000-strong fighting force. And the Taliban have been rocked by drones, U.S. Special Forces, and CIA-trained Afghans, killing off thousands of foot soldiers and hundreds of commanders.
Now M1 Abrams tanks and their mile range have rolled into Helmand and Kandahar, and US officials aren’t hiding their intention. "The tanks bring awe, shock and firepower," said one senior officer. "It's pretty significant."
Unfortunately Afghanistan’s long-term exposure remains blurred and covered in dark splotches. Because of the White House and Pentagon’s prior emphasis on political development, their current emphasis on military progress highlights the lack of corresponding political reform that much more. President Hamid Karzai, already unpopular with many Afghans after last year’s election, has clashed with Washington over corruption cases, private military contractors (PMC), night-raids, and negotiations with the Taliban.
Karzai’s comments regarding night-raids particularly angered Petraeus, who believes he earned the “moral authority” in Iraq to step up air-strikes and tank patrols.
Meanwhile September’s parliamentary election has yet to be sorted out and development projects are creeping along under the potential departure of 20,000+ PMCs. The Afghan army is behind 900 trainers, slipping on attrition rates, and remains a largely Tajik force, with only 5 to 10% estimated to hail from the Pashtun south. Afghanistan’s unpopular police is largely unprepared for their role in local counterinsurgency.
And in the same breathe that they praise Islamabad, US officials threaten Pakistan to move into North Waziristan before they do.
Never-mind that North Waziristan’s commander Hafiz Gul Bahadur, who holds a tenuous ceasefire with Islamabad and avoids attacking Pakistani cities, threatened “endless war" in the event of invasion. Now Islamabad has denied Washington an expanded area for drone operations in light of intelligence that the Haqqanis have relocated to Kurram agency.
Afghanistan’s political and economic growth has failed to produce enough currency to sell the war’s continuation. That’s left a massive bombardment as the only expedient option to convince the Taliban, along with the US and NATO publics, that America is “succeeding.” Few should be awed by this quick fix or shocked by its breakdown. Because withdrawal remains “conditions based,” Washington has turned its success into a reason to stay longer - when the same argument would have been employed against deteriorating conditions.
The White House and Pentagon appear most concerned with dodging their present review, while NATO commanders say a real assessment can’t be made until after next summer. Now 2011 is out and 2014 is in.
“The old message was, we’re looking to July 2011 to begin a transition,” said one White House official. “Now we’re telling people what happens beyond 2011, and I don’t think that represents a shift. We’re bringing some clarity to the policy of our future in Afghanistan.”
This new message has been transmitted by all major US officials - Obama, Petraeus, Secretaries Robert Gates and Hillary Clinton, Joint Chief of Staff Michael Mullen - and through the latest NATO conference. Initially set by Karzai in 2009, the goal calls for full transfer of Afghanistan’s provinces. But it quickly becomes apparent that transferring sovereignty remains semi-independent from troop levels, and that 2014 isn’t the real date to watch as a final exit. Washington has crafted a dual-use policy to withdraw thousands of troops per year and still maintain high troop levels going into 2015.
Last week Tommy Vietor, a White House spokesman, firmly stated, “The president has been crystal clear that we will begin drawing down troops in July of 2011. There is absolutely no change to that policy.”
Then, on the eve of NATO’s summit in Lisbon, Defense spokesman Geoff Morrell told reporters, "So, 2014 has been out there for quite some time as an aspirational goal for us to meet in terms of ultimately putting the Afghan security forces in the lead, having primary responsibility for the security of their country.”
Washington and NATO remain either undecided or disingenuous on 2011 and 2014. While Gates has repeatedly downplayed Obama's July 2011 withdrawal date, he also claimed only a “fraction” of U.S. forces are “likely” to remain in Afghanistan as trainers. This makes no sense - 50,000 U.S. troops stayed in Iraq after the January 2009 handover - and NATO chairman Anders Fogh Rasmussen blurted out what the Pentagon is really thinking: “We will stay as long as it takes to finish our job."
Logically, why would 2014 hold when Marjah and Kandahar have tripled their own time-lines? Karzai himself has mused with 2020, the same date Iraqi generals believe U.S. forces should stay until.
Multiple factors hold the potential to bring the Obama administration's fairy tale to an abrupt and bloody end. Americans and Afghans know that killing Taliban is the easy part, that Washington still has no answer for Karzai, his brother Wali, corruption in general, a distrusted police force, or Pakistan’s strategic dilemma. U.S. operations currently enjoy the upswing, as they should after an injection of 35,000 troops, hundreds of billions of dollars, and the Pentagon’s absolute focus. Something would have gone abnormally terrible were no positive impressions created.
What happens, though, when the cyclical Taliban regain the initiative?
Having already proclaimed their momentum broken, U.S. commanders are basically hoping that doesn’t happen. But why wouldn’t the Taliban return in force in 2011? Because they’re scared? Washington has relapsed into the fatally-flawed theory of shock and awe - the belief that an enemy can be bombed into submission. This was disproved after the fall of Baghdad. Scorched by drones, kill teams, and new precision rockets, NATO has issued press releases of demoralized Taliban wishing to escape the battlefield. Although it’s true that large-scale air strikes "shock" the rank and file Taliban, this rarely make them quit the fight.
Present circumstances shadow the post-9/11 invasion, when U.S. forces inflicted mass casualties on “demoralized” Taliban and al-Qaeda soldiers only for them to regroup in Pakistan and renew the insurgency.
Washington's problem also assumes a mathematical dimension. US and NATO intelligence estimates that the Taliban grew its ranks between 2009 and 2010, to over 30,000. Even if 5,000 Taliban were killed since Obama’s surge in December 2009, the group's strength remains somewhere between 20,000 and 25,000 full and part-time fighters. The endless list of "commanders," also questioned by independent sources, is rumored to be in the thousands. No amount of causalities will prove decisive without the necessary political and economic progress still lagging in Afghanistan.
In the absence of a full-fledged reintegration campaign, Washington lacks the means to remove 25,000 soldiers and their arms from the battlefield. Except, of course, for negotiations with the Taliban, but this avenue isn’t being considered with the seriousness portrayed in public. Despite reports that NATO allowed free movement to senior Taliban leaders negotiating in Kabul, Ahmed Rashid offers a more accurate reading.
“The real game-changer in the region can only come, however, when the United States gives its full support to negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban,” the Pakistani author wrote in Foreign Policy. “Merely facilitating talks is not good enough - only the United States has the power to enforce a deal - but U.S. generals are resisting deeper involvement. The Taliban have to be weakened first, the generals argue. The danger is that this strategy, if it even works, will bring to the surface a much more bitter, radicalized Taliban leadership with closer ties to al Qaeda, making negotiations next to impossible.”
The White House and Pentagon have bet all their chips on frightening the Taliban into submission by “breaking its momentum,” even though the Taliban have lost momentum before only to regain it. Washington's decision stems in part from the false belief that most Taliban fight simply for money and not ideology, leading to reliance on brute force. But the Taliban aren’t going to quit, a reality U.S. officials have tacitly acknowledged by prolonging Afghanistan’s time-line.
Gates likes to threaten the Taliban that they, “will be very surprised come August, September, October and November, when most American forces are still there, and still coming after them.”
The taunt goes both ways; Taliban leader Mullah Omar doesn’t sound like he expects the U.S. occupation to end any time soon. In a five point address to his soldiers, Omar ordered them to, "entangle the enemy in an exhausting war of attrition and wear it away like the former Soviet Union. This will force it (to) face disintegration after dealing a crushing and decisive blow at it that it would not be able to hold itself thereafter.”
America and NATO find themselves in a precarious strategic trap. Harboring no intention of major withdrawals in 2011 or 2012, at the least, a military bubble is being used to create space for non-military progress. Obama declared, "We are in a better place now than we were a year ago," yet this argument is easy to make compared to the disaster of 2009. Military achievements seem to be the only success story, fostering doubt in their ultimate benefit. Despite believing they did so in Lisbon, Washington and NATO have failed to clarify their strategy or convince a skeptical audience.
With neither the West nor the Taliban likely to knock the other out or compromise, Obama will remove a symbolic number of troops as the Taliban's cycle continues into 2012, 2013, and beyond. Nearly 60 years ago, Viet Minh general Vo Nguyen Giap was finishing up the French when he articulated the exact situation America would soon enter - and currently finds itself in.
“The enemy will pass slowly from the offensive to the defensive,” he predicted. “The blitzkrieg will transform itself into a war of long duration. Thus, the enemy will be caught in the dilemma: he has to drag out the war in order to win it and does not possess, on the other hand, the psychological and political means to fight a long drawn-out war.”
Giap had been quoted by Bernard Fall’s prescient Street Without Joy, a book that languished in the shadows during Obama’s last review. Maybe he’ll have time to go through it during December 2011, when the war appears as it did in 2010.
Or his 2013 review, if he lasts that long.