When President Obama announced his Afghanistan policy a year ago, some conservatives had understandable reservations. Was the president sending enough troops? General Stanley McChrystal had asked, in essence, for 40,000 more troops, but Obama sent only 30,000 or so. Was Obama really committed to “victory”? That was a word he didn’t use, just as he didn’t talk about “counterinsurgency” or “nation-building.” Instead he talked about beginning a drawdown in July 2011. That raised a lot of doubts about his level of commitment.
The past year, culminating in last week’s unveiling of the White House “Afpak” review, should have put most of those doubts to rest. President Obama has had repeated chances to downsize and retreat from Afghanistan. That was the option urged on him by many in the Democratic party last June, when the president fired Gen. McChrystal. It was urged on him again before the latest policy review. But Obama has consistently refused to waver, even though it might seem to his political advantage to distance himself from an unpopular war.
The key to the president’s behavior may be found, we believe, in a revealing passage from Bob Woodward’s latest book, Obama’s Wars, which recounts the following exchange between the president and vice president. Biden reportedly told Obama: “If you do what McChrystal wants and adopt his strategy, ‘You own this war.’ ” Obama shot back: “I already own it.”
The president was right. And so, on Afghanistan, Obama has become a hawk in dove’s plumage. He seems to understand that success in this war is vital to the success of his presidency—and he’s acting and talking like it.
On December 16, for instance, the president said, “We will never waver from our goal of disrupting, dismantling, and ultimately defeating al Qaeda.” It would have been nice if he had included the Taliban in that sentence. But Obama has made clear he realizes that the only way to keep al Qaeda out of Afghanistan is by neutralizing the Taliban.
During his press conference, Obama also said, rather ludicrously, that much of the recent progress on the ground has been “the result of us having sent a clear signal that we will . . . start reducing American forces next July.” Not quite. In reality that deadline has made our troops’ jobs harder by emboldening the Taliban and casting doubt about our resolve among the great hordes of Afghan fence-sitters. What has really turbo-charged progress was the decision by Obama to join with other heads of state at the NATO Summit in Lisbon last month in support of a new deadline for “Afghan forces . . . assuming full responsibility for security.” The new deadline is the end of 2014 rather than mid-2011. (The summit declaration was also careful to note that this “will not equate to withdrawal of [NATO] troops.”) That is a welcome, if unacknowledged, shift on the part of the president.
There is little expectation now of a major troop pullout next summer that would threaten the success of the counterinsurgency campaign General David Petraeus is carrying out. As some of us saw for ourselves on a recent visit, American forces and their international and Afghan allies have already driven the Taliban out of many of their traditional safe havens in Helmand and Kandahar provinces in the south.
But don’t take our word for it, or Petraeus’s, or the president’s. The success of coalition forces is confirmed by the Taliban themselves. A December 16 New York Times article quoted an unnamed midlevel Taliban commander saying that “the government has the upper hand now” around Kandahar, the biggest city in the south. “The people are not happy with us. . . .” the commander went on. “The local people are not willingly cooperating with us. They are not giving us a place to stay or giving us food.” In explaining this shift, the Taliban leader stressed the importance of the 2014 deadline, which “has made people change their minds” about whether American troops are on the way out.
What else could Obama be doing? Military leaders would always like to have additional resources so that they can do more and do it faster. But we did not get the sense in our travels across Afghanistan that there is a critical shortage of combat troops—at least not in the areas of the south where Petraeus is putting his main effort. (Regional Command-East remains an economy of force mission, although troops there have done an impressive job of disrupting cells of the insurgent Haqqani network, as well as stopping catastrophic attacks planned for Kabul—an underappreciated achievement.)
In any case, sending additional troops to Afghanistan would not necessarily fix the biggest vulnerabilities of our strategy—corruption and bad governance in Afghanistan, and terrorist sanctuaries in Pakistan. U.S. forces are beginning to address the former issue with steps such as barring Watan Risk Management, a firm affiliated with the Karzais, from bidding on American contracts. The issue of sanctuaries is more intractable; attempts by both the Bush and Obama administrations to cajole Pakistan into abandoning its proxies in the Taliban and the Haqqani network have clearly failed. Drone strikes have been more successful, but have been directed primarily at al Qaeda because that is all Islamabad will support. But we can make significant progress in Afghanistan nonetheless. After all, we are doing so now.
The biggest need is for more “enablers,” such as heavy-lift helicopters to move troops around this vast and mountainous country. The problem is that the administration has imposed a cap of 98,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan (plus another 3,000 that can be approved by the secretary of defense if the need is dire). So, if extra aviation units are sent, someone else has to leave. But there is little slack in a mission that has been chronically underresourced for years. The administration would do well to relax this cap, in line with the president’s promise on Thursday “to give our brave troops and civilians the strategy and resources they need to succeed.” The president, moreover, would be well-advised to spend more time explaining and defending the war to the American people.
But on the whole Obama is doing more than most conservatives expected he would—and certainly more than most in his party would like him to do. And Republicans, to their credit, are standing behind him. Far from disavowing this as “Obama’s war,” John Boehner released a statement last week declaring that “we must remain steadfast in our commitment to the counterinsurgency strategy our commanders on the ground have put in place.”
We are confident that our troops, notwithstanding the numerous obstacles in their path, can rout the Taliban—provided that they have support on the home front. Judging by Obama’s and Boehner’s statements, that support is there. The public at large remains skeptical but, as we saw in Iraq, their views can turn around if they see progress on the ground. And progress is starting to materialize.