The Magazine

Losing Afghanistan?

Dec 12, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 13 • By GARY SCHMITT and JAMIE M. FLY
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Marines are known for their bluntness, so it was not surprising to see the matter-of-fact honesty of General James Amos, commandant of the Marine Corps, on display when interviewed by the Associated Press during a recent trip to visit Marines in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province. Asked about the impending drawdown of thousands of Marines from Helmand, Amos said: “Am I okay with that? The answer is ‘yes.’ We can’t stay in Afghanistan forever. Will it work? I don’t know.”

Photo of U.S. troops in eastern Afghanistan in November 2011.

U.S. troops in eastern Afghanistan, November 2011.


General Amos went on to say that the Corps would do the best it could while following the commander in chief’s orders. But do those orders make sense? Is it good enough to just hope that the drawdown won’t be a strategic mistake of the first order? “I don’t know” is not a satisfactory answer. Indeed, General Amos’s comments should be a warning to the public, the Congress, and those running for president in 2012 that the Obama administration is playing fast and loose with a war that it once argued was “necessary” and “right.”

Amos is of course correct that America can’t stay in Afghanistan forever. But our military is in the position of doggedly trying to do its part while facing a decreasing likelihood of success because of withdrawal timelines imposed for political reasons.

The trend began in 2009, when General Stanley McChrystal requested (as a minimum) 40,000 additional troops to turn around the underresourced and failing Afghan campaign. After a drawn out, months-long review, McChrystal got only 30,000 troops, supplemented by an additional 3,000 noncombat “enablers.”

Given the limitations imposed by Washington, the military’s plan was to focus first on stabilizing areas in southern Afghanistan such as Helmand and Kandahar Provinces. Once these key areas in the Taliban heartland were secured, forces would be shifted to the east to help clear, hold, and stabilize areas along the border with Pakistan.

The military has delivered. The number of enemy-initiated kinetic incidents in the country is declining (except in the east). This week the Afghan government announced that NATO will turn over a swath of Helmand Province as part of the next round of transition to Afghan control. The turnover includes districts such as Marjah, where the Marines have made significant progress since beginning operations in 2010.

But will these gains endure as American forces begin to withdraw more rapidly than planned? Significant progress has been made in training Afghan forces, who are now fighting and risking their lives in large numbers. But, in many areas, these forces are not yet ready to take the lead in fighting the insurgency.

Worse, the surge drawdown announced by President Obama in June makes the other component of the Afghan strategy—shifting resources to deal with the security situation in the east—no longer possible. Beyond the restive areas along the border with Pakistan, coalition commanders also must ensure that the Kabul security zone is adequately defended, as the Taliban and related insurgent groups such as the Haqqani network pursue their strategy of assassinations and high-profile attacks in Kabul.

This will be difficult to manage with the 68,000 U.S. troops remaining in Afghanistan by October 2012. And it will be impossible if, as rumored, President Obama announces further significant troop withdrawals at the NATO summit in Chicago in May 2012.

Our allies, meanwhile, are reading the Washington tea leaves. Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Poland, Belgium, Finland, Spain, and Sweden will reduce troop levels next year. This comes on top of the withdrawal of all Canadian combat troops from Kandahar. If the president succumbs to the temptation to make another drawdown announcement prior to November’s election, one can count on an even greater dash to the exits by allied forces. That would only contribute to uncertainty in the region and among the Afghans themselves. Does anyone believe the Pakistani military will be more cooperative if it thinks the United States and her allies are rushing for the door?

Counterinsurgency campaigns require patience. While considerable blood and treasure have been expended in Afghanistan over the past decade, an adequately resourced counterinsurgency effort was put in place only at summer’s end in 2010. Planned and prospective cuts in forces may be good news to an American public that has grown war weary. But will the “good news” last?

As General Amos suggests, the administration’s drawdown is, at best, a gamble. But national security isn’t a game of roulette. Why not do what it takes to win the war, rather than run away by providing too few resources?

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