It’s been a bad few weeks in Afghanistan. The burning of several Korans by U.S. military personnel at the Bagram airbase on February 20 sparked protests and riots. More troubling were several incidents of “green on blue” attacks in which Afghan security personnel turned on their American advisers; six American soldiers died in such attacks, including two officers slain in the Interior Ministry in Kabul. As a result, NATO advisers were temporarily pulled out of all the ministries in the capital. Then on March 11 an American staff sergeant walked out of his small base in a village north of Kandahar and, for reasons that remain unknown, murdered 16 civilians. A few days later Defense Secretary Leon Panetta arrived at a giant Anglo-American base in Helmand Province just as an Afghan employee was attempting to run down some VIPs on the runway in a stolen pickup truck. Last week ended with President Hamid Karzai demanding that U.S. troops stop operating in villages altogether and pull back to larger forward operating bases and with the Taliban announcing that they were pulling out of nascent peace talks.
Amid all these perceived setbacks and humiliations, it is little wonder that the patience of the American people with the war seems to be approaching the breaking point. Recent polls show that roughly 60 percent of those surveyed think the war is not worth fighting and 50 percent want to accelerate the timetable for withdrawal. Republicans have been staunch supporters of the war effort, but there are cracks appearing even on their side, with presidential candidate Newt Gingrich denouncing the war effort as not “doable” and claiming that a continued U.S. presence in Afghanistan is “counterproductive.” Rick Santorum did not go quite that far, but he did say, “We have to either make the decision to make a full commitment, which this president has not done, or we have to decide to get out, and probably get out sooner.” Congressional Republicans are said to be increasingly restive, too, although there have not been any high-profile defections—yet.
The frustrations that Gingrich and Santorum are tapping into are real, but opposing the war effort is hardly a sure path to political success—as seen from Ron Paul’s poor showings in the primaries (he has not won a single state) and by Gingrich’s failure to win the Alabama and Mississippi primaries in his native South right after his turn against the war. Mitt Romney, despite some initial uncertainty, has emerged as a stalwart on the war, and that has not stopped him from winning more delegates than all his competitors combined. Certainly there is no vocal antiwar movement on the streets—opposition is muted by comparison not only with Vietnam but with the Iraq war, which helped cost Republicans their hold on Congress in 2006.
Perhaps voters are smarter than their leaders realize. They may well be aware that, for all the frustrations of the current war effort, the consequences of an overly precipitous drawdown are likely to be worse. They may also realize that our troops have made real progress, which can be sustained and expanded.
Since the beginning of a full-scale offensive to retake Helmand and Kandahar provinces in 2010, U.S. troops and their allies have driven the Taliban out of most of their southern strongholds. Enemy-initiated attacks are 20 percent lower this year than last, and 36 of the last 45 weeks have seen fewer insurgent attacks than the corresponding week a year ago. Despite a few high-profile attacks, Kabul remains fairly safe—as do the north and west. The exception to this good news story is in the east, where enemy attacks have been up, but then that’s why military commanders have been keen to shift resources there.
Progress in improving Afghan governance has been harder to come by, but there is some good news there too, notably the increasing capabilities and professionalism of the Afghan National Army, which has been taking a larger role in the fight. Some officials, such as Helmand governor Mohammad Gulab Mangal, have also been doing a commendable and courageous job. Even Hamid Karzai, erratic though he is, deserves credit for trying to tamp down, rather than inflame, the Koran-burning protests. That the United States can work with him is demonstrated by the agreement quietly reached by U.S. and Afghan negotiators over the handling of detainees in U.S. custody—they will be transferred to Afghan control but Washington will retain a veto over any releases and U.S. personnel will continue in an oversight role. This shows how, even in the current atmosphere of mutual suspicion, the differences between the two sides can be bridged. Karzai might be even more cooperative if he were assured that America would stand behind his government for the long term.
Unfortunately, rather than regularly explaining and defending our troop presence in Afghanistan, President Obama focuses most of his public comments on his desire to withdraw. Last week the New York Times printed an article, widely seen as a trial balloon, saying that the administration is considering pulling out another 20,000 troops or more by June 2013. That would be a major mistake; the troop cuts that have already been announced—decreasing the force from 100,000 troops last year to 90,000 today and 68,000 by September—imperil commanders’ ability to stabilize the situation. Faster troop cuts, especially if combined with cuts in funding for the Afghan National Security Forces that will necessitate reductions in their ranks, risk creating a situation that spins out of control.
But President Obama’s hesitancy and irresolution should not be an excuse for Republicans to abandon the war effort. They should continue to pressure the president to respect the advice of his commanders in the field, who want to keep 68,000 troops through 2014, with a substantial residual presence after that.
What, after all, is the alternative? Peace talks have scant prospect of success given that the Taliban are now betting—perhaps rightly—that they can simply wait us out. The likely result of a precipitous American pullout, which would trigger an equally hasty exit by our NATO allies, would be a major Taliban offensive in the east and south that would aim to take back Kandahar, Marja, and other population centers that have been secured at considerable cost over the past few years. The Afghan security forces would be likely to splinter along ethnic lines, and the entire country could well be plunged into a civil war as it was in the 1990s, when Kabul was regularly on the receiving end of artillery bombardments.
We know how that conflict played out, with the rise of Taliban rule and the creation of sanctuaries for al Qaeda. There is no need to risk a repeat of such a calamity, when, simply by sticking with current plans and commitments, we have a decent chance to secure our vital interests in Afghanistan.