“War,” as the Roman historian Sallust once observed, “is easy to begin but difficult to stop.” Americans know this to be true because they have lived it in places like Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and now Afghanistan.
For good or ill, after nearly 10 years of war, the table is being set for President Barack Obama to declare victory in Afghanistan and pull the troops out.
“By us killing Osama bin Laden, getting al Qaeda back on its heels, stabilizing much of the country in Afghanistan so that the Taliban can’t take it over,” he said in a recent interview, “it’s now time for us to recognize that we’ve accomplished a big chunk of our mission and that it’s time for Afghans to take more responsibility.”
This is what Obama had in mind in late 2009, when he authorized the Afghan surge and concluded that “it is in our vital national interest to send an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan,” before promising that “after 18 months, our troops will begin to come home.”
Those 18 months will have come and gone in July. Setting aside the bizarre notion that America’s “vital national interest” has an expiration date, the real question, it seems, is not whether or not “it’s time for Afghans to take more responsibility” but this: are Afghans capable of taking on more responsibility, capable of maintaining the institutions we have built to resist the impulses to jihadism, and if not, does staying the course serve America’s interests or does withdrawing?
Reasonable people can and do disagree about the answer to that multifaceted question.
On one side, there is growing sentiment in the White House and Congress to bring the troops home. Sen. Carl Levin, for instance, wants to withdraw at least 15,000 troops by the end of this year. This is a reflection of public sentiment. A recent CNN poll reveals that 58 percent of Americans oppose the war, and 54 percent think the U.S. should no longer be involved in Afghanistan.
It’s no wonder why the American people have tired of the war. With more than 1,580 American troops killed, $444 billion spent and nearly a decade of commitment fighting the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan, America has already made an enormous sacrifice. Moreover, many Americans simply don’t think this counterinsurgency can be won.
On the other side, Gen. David Petraeus, commander of the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, wants to press the initiative. He recently reported that ISAF has “inflicted enormous losses on mid-level Taliban…and taken away some of their most important safe havens” and that standing up new Afghan army units and creation of the Afghan Local Police is reintegrating “reconcilable insurgents” back into society, much like the Sons of Iraq program did during the surge he led in Iraq.
Petraeus said last week that progress against the Taliban and other insurgent groups is “fragile” and “reversible.” “We want to ensure that Afghanistan does not become, again, a safe haven in which [al Qaeda] might plot attacks such as those of 9/11…The only way to achieve that mission, of course, is to help our Afghan partners to enable them to develop the ability over time to secure and govern themselves.”
Likewise, outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates says that “if we keep this momentum up, we will deliver a decisive blow to the enemy and turn the corner on this conflict.” The operative phrase from Gates’ perspective is “if we keep this momentum up.” As Defense News notes, Gates finds himself “sparring at a distance with White House aides who are pushing for a faster drawdown of the 100,000-strong U.S. force.”
Incoming Pentagon chief Leon Panetta seems to share Gates’ view, arguing at a confirmation hearing that “to be able to finish the job, we’ve got to keep the pressure up.”
People on the Petraeus-Gates-Panetta side know that, with time and patience, insurgencies can be defeated. Colombia, Sri Lanka and Iraq are the most recent examples.
But more than this, those who share the Petraeus-Gates-Panetta view on Afghanistan are haunted by what happened the last time America lost interest in Afghanistan: when the Red Army was defeated and withdrew, America stopped caring about Afghanistan—until September 11, 2001.
Indeed, when asked this past March to make a case for staying the course, Petraeus bluntly replied, “Two words, and those are nine eleven,” reminding Congress that America abandoned Afghanistan once before. “I think it would be a mistake, a big mistake, to go down that road again.”
Whether we declare victory now or stay on until 2014 or 2020, it does seem the battlefront is shifting:
• Osama bin Laden, after all, was in Pakistan. He had been there for years. The jihadists are striking the Pakistani government at will and control parts of the country. It’s ironic that Pakistan was once a jumping-off point for tamping down al Qaeda in Afghanistan, and Afghanistan is now the jumping-off point for tamping down al Qaeda in Pakistan.
• Yemen is disintegrating, and Yemen’s branch of al Qaeda is increasingly the epicenter of al Qaeda activity.
• Likewise, lawless Somalia provides an ideal environment for al Qaeda and its kindred movements.
• With a wary eye on Egypt, Yemen and Bahrain, Saudi Arabia is becoming a garrison state, buying up massive amounts of U.S. military equipment and working with Washington to build, equip and train a 35,000-man security force to protect Saudi oil facilities, the largest of which was targeted in a failed al Qaeda attack in 2006. (If the enemy hits the Saudi oil fields, we will long for the days of $4/gallon gas.)
Yet even with those other fronts coming to life, there are few places on earth more deserving of the American military’s attention than Afghanistan. This is partly because of the nature of the enemy, partly because of what Afghanistan spawned 10 Septembers ago and partly because of what America has already invested in Afghanistan.
“For Afghanistan to be able to survive,” defense minister Abdul Rahim Wardak recently said during a meeting with Gates, “it will need your help beyond 2014.”
Speaking to U.S. commanders in late 2009, Wardak explained why the war-weary Afghan people have not turned against the U.S.-led NATO mission:
Afghans have never seen you as occupiers, even though this has been the major focus of the enemy’s propaganda campaign. Unlike the Russians, who imposed a government with an alien ideology, you enabled us to write a democratic constitution and choose our own government. Unlike the Russians, who destroyed our country, you came to rebuild.
Indeed, not only did the U.S. military liberate 26 million Afghans by closing the book on the medieval Taliban, it also has laid the foundation for something better. It would be a shame to surrender and squander that. As Gates puts it, “Far too much has been accomplished, at far too great a cost, to let the momentum slip away just as the enemy is on his back foot.”
Alan W. Dowd writes on defense and security issues.