By Jose Rodriguez
Last week, the Obama administration released its much anticipated assessment of the war in Afghanistan.
After seven years of neglect, President Obama made Afghanistan a top foreign policy priority. By the end of 2009, a strategic policy for Afghanistan was decided, which resulted in a surge of 30,000 additional troops. However, it was not until summer 2010 when all of the troops were in the country, bringing the total number of American troops to 97,000. The counter-insurgency strategy, therefore, has had roughly three months to operate at full capacity, a point mostly neglected in the mainstream media.
Though President Obama agreed to 30,000 additional troops, it was still fewer than what the military had requested. General David Petraeus, Commander, International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and Commander, U.S. Forces Afghanistan (USFOR-A), has therefore focused on a triage approach, which placed our forces in the major population centers, particularly in the Helmand and Kandahar provinces. These southern provinces have been the strongholds of the Taliban.
Many in the media, from liberals on MSNBC, to conservatives like Joe Scarsborough and George Will, predicted total and complete failure in Afghanistan. Following the release of the assessment, the media has basked in the glory of its cynicism. Headlines, like the following, are ubiquitous: “Obama’s Afghanistan Report: Progress and Challenges”, and “Afghanistan Report Finds Progress ‘Fragile,’ Offers Few Details”. Even the language in the report suggests that the Obama administration is not impressed with the progress made thus far.
The report highlights three areas of progress: disrupting and dismantling al Qaeda; Pakistan; and Afghanistan.
Al Qaeda’s senior leadership has been dwindled as a result of our attempts to hunt them down and kill them. Because of our intense efforts, they have been forced to find safe havens in more remote (and less secure) areas, making it more difficult for them to plan, prepare, and carry out acts of terrorism. Our efforts have been both in Afghanistan and Pakistan, especially since al Qaeda has been in hiding on the Pakistan side of the border. The report underscores our government’s concern that al Qaeda could threaten the stability of Pakistan, a nuclear armed nation.
Pakistan, in the last year, has been cooperating with US efforts to root out al Qaeda and Taliban leaders in the FATA region. These efforts have had deadly consequences for Pakistan’s civilians and military. Nonetheless, Pakistan has to do more to develop the FATA region, which will do more to bring stability to the region. This will do more to deny al Qaeda and the Taliban safe havens than military action.
Afghanistan is also an area where there has been progress. The report neglects any discussion of Hamid Karzai and accusations of corruption, which has earned the report criticism. Regardless, the report highlights efforts by the US to begin transitioning all responsibility to the Afghans. Though the US military will be out of Afghanistan by 2014, the US will be there to assist Afghanistan for years to come. The surge of civilian resources has also had the benefit of improving the competence of the Afghan government and government programs. They have also been monitoring progress in combating corruption and emphasizing accountability. The most important progress has been demonstrated in the provinces of Helmand and Kandahar, where US forces have displaced the Taliban.
For seven years, the Bush administration neglected Afghanistan. During that time, all the energy, focus, and resources were diverted to Iraq. Afghanistan was forgotten and assumed to be a complete success. The Taliban took advantage of our situation in Iraq, and they re-established themselves in many parts of the country. Indeed, they set-up secret governments, which, in many respects, were more responsive to the civilian population. Since President Obama’s surge, the Taliban’s gains have been reversed. As we approach July 2011, the US will be evaluating the ability of Afghan security forces to competently assume full control over areas cleared and held by American and coalition forces.
The report also makes it clear that, while these improvements are crucial, they are also fragile and reversible.
But amid all the back-patting of the media and critics of the Afghanistan war, the ability of US forces to clear and hold the south is an important indication that we are indeed turning the corner. In places like Marjah and Nawa, the Taliban, who were once the dominant presence, have been completely displaced. Bazaars, restaurants, and businesses are open. The people are no longer concerned about Taliban intimidation, since they know that US forces are there to protect them. The counter-insurgency strategy is working, albeit slowly, and it needs time.
Richard Holbrooke, a legendary diplomat, famous for his efforts to end the Bosnian war, died on December 13th. He was the Obama administration’s lead diplomat to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Liberal critics of the war, especially on the Huffington Post, have latched onto his final words: “End the war in Afghanistan.” However, for those who knew Holbrooke best, his final words were not a death-bed plea, but part of jovial banter between himself and his family. Ever the obsessed and driven man, he was focused on bringing about a solution to the Afghan war, even on his death bed. His family and the doctors around him were trying to get him to calm down and rest, and they asked him what they could do to calm him down. He responded, “Stop this war.”
In the final analysis, this war will not be ended through military force, a fact everyone (including Holbrooke) understands. But there, unfortunately, has to be force. In order for there to be a political resolution to this conflict, the Taliban has to be brought to its knees. If the Taliban feels as though they have the ability to succeed over American and ISAF forces, they will not negotiate. If we pull out now, as critics have urged, the Taliban will undoubtedly successfully bring down the fragile Afghan government. Needless to say, al Qaeda will, once again, have the freedom to organize, plan, and export terrorism, just as they did before 9/11.
The United States has abandoned Afghanistan twice.
The last time we abandoned Afghanistan was in the early lead up to the war in Iraq. We allowed the Taliban to become resurgent, the government to become corrupt, and lost our legitimacy with the Afghan people. This abandonment has caused made it difficult to regain the trust of the Afghan people.
The first time we abandoned Afghanistan was after the Soviets withdrew their forces. We had been secretly supporting, funding, and arming the mujahedeen’s efforts to expel the Soviets. Once that conflict drew to a close, we stood back as Afghanistan fell into a bloody civil war. Over 400,000 Afghans were killed as a result. Also, more importantly, the Taliban were able to grab control of Afghanistan.
If we abandon Afghanistan again, then we will have blood on our hands. To be sure, there are no good options. To be sure, this is not a war we can win. But what we can do is bring stability to Afghanistan and allow them an opportunity to take control of their own future. For that to happen, we have to continue our efforts against the Taliban, deny al Qaeda sanctuary, and improve governance in Afghanistan. This will require time and patience.
Both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars provide an excellent lesson for the American people: do not support foolish military ventures that will be difficult to get out of. As the saying goes, “You break it, you bought it.” And now the American people are feeling buyer’s remorse.
Be sure to read my first post on the Afghan war: https://dissentiscool.wordpress.com/2009/03/30/whats-the-deal-with-afghanistan/