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Press the Advantage

May 23, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 34 • By GARY SCHMITT
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When you are in a fight and have your opponent down on the pavement with your boot on his neck, the last thing you want to do is step off. You keep the boot firmly planted, pressing even harder, until he yields. Otherwise it’s a certainty that he’ll get back up, start throwing punches again, and drag out a fight that should have been settled sooner.

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Such is the case in Afghanistan with the American-led counterinsurgency against the Taliban and its jihadist allies. It’s becoming increasingly clear that we have the boot on our opponent’s neck. First, there was the killing of Osama bin Laden. While not directly related to the insurgency, the raid on Abbottabad did eliminate the most notable figure tied to the original reason for invading Afghanistan and deposing the Taliban regime.

Second, as each day goes by, there are more signs that the surge of troops into Afghanistan has reversed the momentum of the insurgency. So far, the Taliban’s spring offensive has amounted to attacks designed more as publicity stunts than as operationally serious counteroffensives. In the past 90 days alone, the allied effort has killed or captured some 500 insurgent leaders, while taking 2,700 lower-level fighters off the battlefield as well. Over the past half-year, with the surge fully in place, the coalition has seized more weapons caches than in the previous two years combined. Faced with this mounting pressure, it’s no surprise that reports from the field are full of accounts of local Taliban and Taliban sympathizers attempting to cut deals to save their skins.

Instead of using this momentum to finish the job, however, there are persistent rumors that the White House wants to use the success of the surge to reduce force levels this July more than commanders in the field desire. Bolstered by the usual voices on Capitol Hill, the White House may also use the opportunity to call for further cuts at year’s end, and promise more rapid withdrawals over the following year as we head into the presidential campaign season.

To be fair, President Obama has twice added a substantial number of U.S. troops to the Afghan theater, bringing the total number of American forces to around 100,000. But a precipitous withdrawal of those forces, just as they have gained the initiative, will only prolong the conflict. Our European allies will use the announcement of cuts to make their own. The Taliban will be bolstered by believing that time is on their side. Both the Afghan and Pakistani governments will increase their self-dealing and Machiavellian scheming. And the general population of Afghanistan will once again go back to fence-sitting, hoping for the best but fearing the worst.

There is a simple truth about counterinsurgencies: If resourced properly, and if the strategy of “clear, hold, and build” is carried out consistently, success is very likely. Final victory may take awhile. But the cost of securing that victory decreases fairly rapidly once the population views the insurgents as more of an irritant than a potential victor. Since these conflicts often occur in the messiest and most uninviting of places, however, democracies typically under-resource their effort and do all they can to get out as quickly as possible. All of which is politically understandable—but strategically self-defeating.

We should not kid ourselves that the number of troops we have deployed to Afghanistan gives us the kind of flexibility that would allow for a significant drawdown. In late 2009, when General Stanley McChrystal spelled out his plans for what was required to turn around Afghanistan, he said the minimum number of troops needed was 40,000. The president gave him 30,000. The Afghan war is resourced at a level that allows the military to simply “get by” with its campaign plans. It’s a credit to the American and coalition troops that the anti-Taliban campaign has been as successful as it has been over the past year. But one would be hard pressed to find anyone on the ground in Afghanistan who thinks the effort is flush with soldiers.

One could make the argument that a politically astute White House would build upon this recent success to shore up the president’s commander in chief credentials and help neutralize the GOP’s traditional advantage when it comes to national security. But, given the close attention the administration pays to poll numbers and the apparent decline in support for the war in Afghanistan, it seems just as probable that the White House will see promises of substantial cuts in our forces there as good politics. That would be a terrible mistake.

Choosing a course of premature withdrawal will be the equivalent of taking America’s boot off the Taliban’s neck. And it will make it even more difficult to bring this conflict to a successful conclusion.

—Gary Schmitt

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