The Magazine

They Can Do It

Our troops can win in Afghanistan. But the key battleground is in Washington.

Nov 14, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 09 • By MAX BOOT
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

To have any chance of success, in my view, Allen must have at least 68,000 troops through the end of the 2013 summer fighting season (down from 100,000 today). That would enable him to consolidate gains in the south, expand the security “bubble” around Kabul so as to connect the capital with Kandahar, and continue to disrupt Haqqani operations in the east, while also completing the buildup of the Afghan National Security Forces. The latter have grown from just 187,000 personnel in 2009 to 306,000 today, and they are supposed to reach a peak strength of 352,000 by the end of 2012. From all that I heard, the Afghan Army is performing credibly; it is the institution that Afghans tell pollsters they esteem the most, and it is fighting hard. But it still needs a lot of support from the coalition, especially in logistics, intelligence and surveillance, fire support, route-clearance vehicles, and med-evac helicopters. The police lag behind but are also slowly improving. Their continued improvement is predicated on the presence of coalition mentors, which will be hard to pull off if U.S. troop numbers are reduced too fast. 

“A further drop beyond 68,000 would be catastrophic,” one U.S. official told me—but it could well happen. In May 2012 President Obama is hosting a NATO summit in his hometown, Chicago. He could well use that occasion to announce further pullouts ahead of the November U.S. presidential election. Already the press is reporting that the White House may switch U.S. forces to a primarily advisory mission in 2012, two years sooner than planned.

War weariness on the home front is the most prominent danger facing the U.S.-led campaign in Afghanistan, but it is hardly the only one. There is also the danger posed by sanctuaries in Pakistan—indeed by Pakistan’s active support for groups such as the Taliban and the Haqqani network. While most insurgents in Afghanistan are locals, many of their weapons come from Pakistan, including the deadly fertilizer-based IEDs that are still the biggest killers of U.S. troops. And most of their training camps and leaders are safely tucked away in Pakistan. Iran is also providing some support to the Taliban but not on the scale of Pakistan.

Just before his retirement as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen blew the whistle on the nefarious links between the Haqqani network and Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Agency (ISI), but no one has figured out how to get the Pakistanis to back off. Pakistan’s generals see the Taliban and Haqqanis as instruments of their foreign policy, and they want their proxies in control across the border. The alternative, they fear, is an Afghanistan dominated by India—an absurd fear but one stoked by Karzai’s recently concluded strategic partnership with New Delhi. The United States has tried both aiding and pressuring Islamabad. Nothing has worked. 

The most effective American tool in Pakistan has been drone strikes, but these were primarily limited to al Qaeda targets. That changed on October 13 when a U.S. drone took out Janbaz Zadran, a senior Haqqani leader, near Miram Shah, a town in North Waziristan that has been the Haqqanis’ longtime headquarters. The strike shattered the Haqqanis’ assumption of invulnerability. More such strikes could further damage their organization—especially if the CIA manages to kill the group’s founder, Jalaluddin Haqqani, and his son, Sirajuddin, now its operational chief. 

The Taliban too could be vulnerable to cross-border raids although their headquarters—in Quetta—is deeper into Pakistan and strikes there would spark more of a backlash from the Pakistanis, who can always threaten to close an important NATO supply route running from the port of Karachi. But the town of Chaman, the main border crossing point on the road to Kandahar, is another hotbed of insurgent activity that coalition forces might be able to strike without as many repercussions in Pakistan. ISI generals would also be vulnerable to sanctions that target their bank accounts and impede their ability—and that of their offspring—to travel in the West. But so far there is little consensus in Washington on such steps. The administration has not even formally designated the Haqqani network as a terrorist organization, perhaps in a misguided attempt to facilitate talks with the group. In fact, talks are doubtful given the virulence of the Haqqanis, but if they did come about, the possibility of lifting a terrorist designation could be an incentive to reach an agreement.

Yet another major obstacle to a successful outcome in Afghanistan is the pervasive corruption that drives Pashtun villagers into the arms of the Taliban. Hamid Karzai sits atop a complex web of patronage networks that rip off billions of dollars in international aid, connive in the drug trade, timber smuggling, and other rackets, steal land, and extort payoffs from ordinary citizens who need anything from the government. No one expects that Afghanistan will be as honestly run as Switzerland anytime in this millennium, but current levels of corruption are well beyond local norms, and they threaten the long-term stability of the country. 

The U.S. response has been limited and belated. It was only in the summer of 2010 that General Petraeus set up a unit—Combined Joint Interagency Task Force Shafafiyat (“openness” in Dari)—to track the coalition’s own spending and try to prevent too much of it from winding up in the wrong pockets. Under the dynamic leadership of Brigadier General H.R. McMaster, one of the Army’s premier soldier-scholars, Shafafiyat has scored some notable successes—such as cleaning up outrageous levels of fraud at the main military hospital in Kabul and barring a number of corrupt companies from bidding for coalition trucking contracts. But much more needs to be done. Reducing corruption is a long-term undertaking, and there is a distinct sense in Kabul that time is running out for the coalition mission.

Originally the end of 2014 had been designated by the NATO Lisbon summit in November 2010 as the time when “Afghan forces will be assuming full responsibility for security across the whole of Afghanistan.” But the summit declaration also said: “Transition will be conditions-based, not calendar-driven, and will not equate to withdrawal of [coalition] troops.” Now, however, most nations, including the United States, appear to be bent on pulling out almost all of their troops by the end of 2014. If the United States were to draw down to fewer than 10,000 troops by 2015, and if there is no miraculous change for the better on the ground, there is a real risk that the Afghan government and security forces could collapse, setting off a civil war of the kind that devastated the country in the 1990s. That war, recall, was triggered by the end of Soviet aid to the Najibullah regime. “Everyone is scared here,” Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak told us. “We worry the United States and the rest of the international community will leave us as they left us after the Soviet Union was defeated.”

To avoid such a dire outcome, the United States will need to make a long-term commitment—something that the Karzai government, for all the difficulties it causes us, is eager to see. Negotiations are now in full swing on a Strategic Partnership Agreement between the United States and Afghanistan. Two issues are holding up the conclusion of talks—Karzai’s desire to end coalition detention of Afghans and nighttime Special Operations raids—but the general expectation on both sides in Kabul is that these are not deal-breakers. A signed treaty should be an important endorsement of the stability and longevity of the Afghan government. But much will still depend on two decisions, one to be made in Afghanistan, the other in the United States. 

The first decision concerns Afghanistan’s post-2014 leadership. Karzai’s second term of office expires that year, and he has made it clear that he will not seek to amend the constitution to serve another term. Since Afghanistan has no real political parties, that leaves a free-for-all succession battle in which the United States, if it chooses to do so, can play an important role by trying to anoint a relatively honest and effective leader who could do a better job than Karzai has done. 

The second decision, to be made in Washington, is even more important: How rapidly will we draw down and what “steady state” troop level will we seek after 2014? Last year retired Lieutenant General David Barno, a former U.S. commander in Afghanistan (who traveled there with me in October), and Andrew Exum, a former Army ranger who, like Barno, is now in residence at the Center for New American Security, issued a report suggesting that Afghanistan would need a sustainable presence of 25,000-35,000 troops focused on supporting the Afghan security forces. But given President Obama’s complete withdrawal from Iraq, that may be more than he will support. 

As is so often the case with wars waged by a democratic nation, the really decisive terrain is not on a faraway battlefield but in the halls of power back home. I am confident that the troops in Afghanistan can get the job done if their commanders receive the resources they need. Given the war weariness plaguing the American political class, I am less confident that those resources will be forthcoming.

Max Boot is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick senior fellow in national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is completing a history of guerrilla warfare and terrorism.

Recent Blog Posts

The Weekly Standard Archives

Browse 18 Years of the Weekly Standard

Old covers