AEI's Danielle Pletka puts the war in Afghanistan in perspective, in a column for the Daily Beast:

The choices for America in Afghanistan are simpler than they appear in the fog of political debate: We can win or we can lose. Definitions can be debated, but in short, victory will mean that Afghanistan will not be a sustainable operational haven for al Qaeda, its political and terrorist affiliates, or a base for aggression against the U.S. and its allies.

Two years ago when he announced a troop surge into Afghanistan, President Obama promised "troops will begin to come home" in July 2011. The White House is now reportedly engaged in an internal tussle to decide just how many troops should be part of that summer drawdown. As usual, self-serving counsel is being ladled out generously by politicos of left and right concerned by cost, endgame, and most of all, their own political prospects come November 2012. Ditto the White House, which is divided between partisans of Barack Obama (the president) and Barack Obama (the candidate)....

If the United States chooses not to lose the war in Afghanistan, victory will not look like Germany or South Korea. But that should not be our aspiration. We cannot "nation-build" Afghanistan into a state it will not soon be—but it can be better. The surge that Barack Obama ordered so courageously in 2009 is working, and we must make every effort to ensure that, like the Iraqis, Afghans turn away from what Obama calls "the perils of political violence for a democratic process." In 2006, there was little faith that Iraq could ever work. In 2011, too many are pressing to choose defeat in Afghanistan. They may be hiding behind the economy, bin Laden's dead body, or a half-dozen other euphemisms for "surrender," but make no mistake: That is their aim.

Whole thing here.

Jeffrey Dressler, of the Institute for the Study of War, analyzes the "Consequences of Troop Withdrawal in Afghanistan."

One month after the successful U.S. operation that killed al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, the defense community and media have shifted their attention to the troop withdrawal from Afghanistan slated to take place this summer. The administration has begun to indicate that the withdrawal number may be higher than expected, which some applaud and others fear may turn the tide against the visible progress underway in Afghanistan. In the coming weeks, President Obama will consider the recommendation of his senior military commanders on the future of U.S. troops in Afghanistan. It is important for the President’s decision to be guided by his commanders’ understanding of current realities on the ground, as much remains be done in order to solidify recent gains and to continue to reverse the insurgency’s momentum on a national scale.

The troop surge that began in 2009 has enhanced the coalition’s ability to control terrain. Moreover, progress against insurgents in the south and the killing of Osama bin Laden has breathed new life into a campaign now in its tenth year. Yet, the fight against al-Qaeda and other insurgents is far from complete. In an op-ed published Tuesday in the Wall Street Journal, ISW’s President, Dr. Kimberly Kagan, and Dr. Frederick Kagan expanded on this view, explaining that as the fight approaches its peak, progress remains fragile and under assault, and every available soldier is needed to maintain momentum and cement the progress ISAF has achieved since 2009. Whether the President’s final decision calls for a modest or significant troop withdrawal, the gains that have been achieved are still reversible, and U.S. and coalition forces must still take on significant hard combat challenges, particularly in Afghanistan’s south and east.

Helmand and Kandahar provinces in Afghanistan’s south were the primary targets of the 30,000 surge forces that arrived in 2010, and coalition forces have been successful in securing these areas and building local capacity. Though Taliban insurgents are still mounting a vigorous counteroffensive against coalition forces in the province’s northern district of Sangin, the fight to secure Helmand has overall been deemed a resounding success. Most importantly, the insurgency no longer poses a strategic threat to key population centers and transportation routes, and prevailing fear among the population has been greatly reduced. Sangin will likely be the last major security challenge facing Afghan and coalition forces in Helmand. In neighboring Kandahar, coalition forces continue to clear, hold, and build former Taliban-infested districts surrounding the provincial capital of Kandahar City. Senior commanders are confident that a successful 2011 campaign to prevent Taliban re-infiltration in the south will permit a shift in focus to the east, where decisive and necessary operations could begin in 2012.

In order to confront the challenges of Afghanistan’s east, coalition forces will require substantial combat power, as this part of Afghanistan holds more difficult challenges than those found in the south. Key population and economic zones are geographically isolated and the insurgency is an eclectic mix of seasoned fighters, foreign terrorists, and proxies of neighboring states such as Pakistan. Targeting insurgent groups that provide the regional platform upon which al-Qaeda and other foreign terrorists operate is the only way to prevent Afghanistan from once again harboring terrorists that threaten America and U.S. allies. Without a sufficiently resourced offensive in the east, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to achieve President Obama’s goal to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

President Obama seems committed to honoring his pledge to begin withdrawing U.S. military personnel from Afghanistan in July of 2011. A modest reduction, while potentially counterproductive, is unlikely to pose a strategic threat to the overall mission. A substantial reduction of surge forces, however, not only threatens fragile and reversible gains in the south, but also increases the size and scope of the remaining challenges elsewhere in theater and restricts ISAF’s ability to apply necessary force in strategically critical areas like eastern Afghanistan. The risks of substantially drawing down forces in July 2011 jeopardizes the President’s own objectives and threatens to embolden an insurgency that, though more fractured than ever, remains determined to threaten the region’s stability and support the presence of transnational groups.

Jeffrey Dressler is a Senior Research Analyst at ISW.
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