Afghanistan - now what?
The "surge" is officially over in Afghanistan:
The last of the 33,000 'surge' troops ordered into Afghanistan by President Barack Obama more than three years ago have withdrawn from the country, returning the US presence to pre-surge levels.
President Barack Obama's speech at West Point on Dec. 1, 2009 announced the shift in strategy, along with its goal to "to seize the initiative, while building the Afghan capacity that can allow for a responsible transition of our forces out of Afghanistan." The President also described the worsening scenario that the policy would attempt to correct:
But while we have achieved hard-earned milestones in Iraq, the situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated. After escaping across the border into Pakistan in 2001 and 2002, al-Qaeda's leadership established a safe haven there. Although a legitimate government was elected by the Afghan people, it's been hampered by corruption, the drug trade, an under-developed economy, and insufficient security forces. Over the last several years, the Taliban has maintained common cause with al-Qaeda, as they both seek an overthrow of the Afghan government. Gradually, the Taliban has begun to control additional swaths of territory in Afghanistan, while engaging in increasingly brazen and devastating acts of terrorism against the Pakistani people.
Yet, as the surge ends, aside from significant -- though not decisive -- setbacks for al Qaeda and the Taliban, what about the above rationale has changed?
The Obama administration's Afghan push employed well-executed counterinsurgency doctrine in the provinces of Nimroz, Helmand, and eventually Kandahar, with stopgap measures everywhere else. The military's implied second act, after selling the initial surge and checking the Taliban's power in the south, was to shift forces to shore up the troublesome east. But this never happened. And as a result, counterinsurgency doctrine was never truly attempted in these key areas, although US military leadership indicated otherwise.
In an interview with LWJ last year, Regional Command East Commander Major General Daniel Allyn asserted that COIN was still being employed in the East, despite a drawdown of troops that prevented the resource shift. His assessment may have been politically necessary for a flag officer, and it was true to some degree; certain counterinsurgency components were present, and even a few others were robust. But overall, the fight in RC East was vastly underresourced to achieve the type of political and security momentum required to break the insurgency, and it was not accompanied by successful political pressure to address the insurgent redoubts in Pakistan. It is important to note, however, that given the region's dispersed population and geographic heterogeneity, a well-executed COIN strategy in the east would have been a herculean task even with proper resources, and possibly unlikely to succeed, at least within a time frame feasible for a Western democracy fatigued by a decade of war.
But the fact remains that the Obama administration never made the attempt, which calls into question the point of wasting lives, limbs, and resources by surging into Helmand and Kandahar. Either policymakers were ignorant and unrealistic about the amount of time and effort required to turn around a country like Afghanistan, and they believed that "reversing Taliban momentum" was sufficient to achieve enduring progress, or the COIN doctrine and accompanying surge were cynically employed for domestic political considerations. None of these scenarios reflect well on the decision.
The stopgap plan for the East was to employ punishing night raids and conventional clearing operations against insurgents ('mowing the grass') while training up the Afghan security forces, in a strategy reminiscent of pre-surge Iraq. Allyn described this effort in last year's interview, and noted how it was contingent on partnered operations and minimum US troop levels in the East [emphasis mine]:
[T]he key for us to be able to do this is to accelerate Afghan security force capacity. That is the task that can be put at risk if there is an increased pace of withdrawal. Because I'm outnumbered two to one by Afghan security forces already. In other words, I have to prioritize who I'm partnered with based on where they are in their development, what mission we're going after in the region they're operating in ... so if the number [of American troops] comes down significantly greater, then partnership becomes a challenge. As long as we can keep those ratios right as we get the Afghan security forces developed; frankly, we are already making significant headway against the insurgency.
The plan for this accelerated development of the ANSF -- hinging on widespread partnered operations between both US and Afghan conventional and special forces -- has obviously been thrown into disarray by the alarming increase in insider attacks by Afghan security personnel on their Western partners within the past two years. And its failure was arguably officially acknowledged this week by the US military's resulting suspension of combat patrols with Afghan forces.
Throw in the Taliban's relentless, somewhat successful focus on high profile attacks, and Afghan President Hamid Karzai's destructive political maneuvers, exemplified by his firing of the competent and pro-Western-alliance governor of Helmand province, and it's hard to describe US strategy with words other than "rapidly deteriorating," and perhaps "dire."
After 11 years of war, the status of the American effort in Afghanistan is not encouraging: an abortive attempt at counterinsurgency; a surge of troops announced in conjunction with an intended withdrawal date; the partnership with a particularly self-destructive and corrupt Karzai regime; NATO's ineffective management of Pakistan's double game and support of insurgent redoubts across their border; a rash of insider attacks that have severely impeded the partnership required for rapid development of indigenous security forces; and some recent successful high-profile Taliban attacks. Contrary to the Obama administration assertions, and concurrent with a recent Long War Journal analysis, the Taliban's "momentum" has not been "broken."
Commentary on Afghanistan by contributors here at The Long War Journal has been negative for some time, but the accumulating snowball of bad news has reached a new level. It is hard to fathom what an attractive course of action looks like for US policy now. The best-case scenario: America maintains the tepid alliance with an Afghan government that permits help maintaining its existence during the protracted civil war likely to follow the US military's 2014 departure, while keeping a small force in country to conduct counterterrorism operations. And as unattractive as this best-bad-case-scenario option may seem for America, it's certainly bleaker for the people of Afghanistan.