The Taliban Are Too Weak for a Tet Offensive

The Wall Street Journal

April 18, 2012

The Tet Offensive it wasn't. On Sunday, insurgents belonging to the Haqqani network attacked seven high-profile sites in Kabul and other parts of Afghanistan. The Afghan National Security Forces responded swiftly and professionally with minimal assistance from NATO. Far more insurgents wound up dying (36) than members of the security forces (11). Life in the capital has already returned to normal. When I was there a few weeks ago, I saw a thriving city where the biggest daily concerns are traffic jams and air pollution—not insurgent attacks.

The failure of this insurgent assault bodes well for Afghanistan's future—and runs counter to the doom-and-gloom in the U.S. The Taliban, Haqqanis and associated insurgents continue to enjoy safe havens in Pakistan, but the only way they will shoot their way back into power is if we abandon the vast majority of Afghans who have no desire to be ruled by ignorant, medieval tyrants.

Significant progress has been made in recent weeks in negotiating a long-term U.S.-Afghan security accord that the Obama administration hopes to unveil at the NATO summit in Chicago next month. The two most contentious issues—"night raids" and the detention of Taliban prisoners by the U.S. military—were resolved by giving Afghan authorities more control while allowing essential operations to continue.

The bad news—and the reason so many well-to-do Afghans are talking of selling homes and businesses and moving abroad—is that there remain major concerns about how much support the U.S. will provide for Afghanistan when 70% of the American public has turned against the war.

The White House can take three specific steps to make clear the depth of our commitment. First, pledge to maintain a force of at least 68,000 troops through the end of 2014. Second, maintain a residual presence after 2014 of at least 30,000 troops to advise and assist Afghan forces. Third, maintain funding of at least $6 billion a year for the Afghan National Security Forces indefinitely.

Unfortunately, there is serious reason to wonder if these conditions will be met. The president is already in the process of cutting the U.S. force—which peaked at 100,000 last year—by 32,000 troops. That drawdown will be completed by the end of September, earlier than military commanders deem advisable. The withdrawal of these "surge" forces has imperiled plans to switch the counterinsurgency focus from southern to eastern Afghanistan where Haqqani sanctuaries remain intact a few hours' drive from Kabul.

I recently visited Khost Province on the border with Pakistan. Although this is a longtime Haqqani stronghold, both Khost and neighboring Paktia are garrisoned by only one U.S. brigade, or roughly 4,000 troops. The widespread fear is that once the U.S. troops leave, the Haqqanis will return. It is imperative that more U.S. troops be committed to clear such areas, but that may no longer be possible given the U.S. drawdown. So far plans call for only one additional brigade to be sent to the east—a unit from the 82nd Airborne Division that is moving into Ghazni Province south of Kabul.

Even after 2014, barring a miraculous peace agreement with the Taliban, Afghanistan will need a robust American presence. Afghan troops are eager and skilled fighters—they rush into battle in unarmored pick-up trucks along bomb-strewn roads—but they need assistance with logistics, medevac flights, air support, intelligence collection, and other higher-level functions.

Providing that support will require a substantial contingent of American personnel who in turn will need more troops to protect and supply them. If U.S. force levels post-2014 are minuscule—say, the 5,000 troops that President Obama offered to leave in Iraq—they will not be able to protect themselves, much less carry out their mission.

The bulk of future fighting must be carried out by the Afghans themselves, but in order to have any chance of success they must have enough troops to garrison a far-flung country of 30 million people. And that in turn will require outside funding. The Kabul government remains too impoverished to pay its own security costs.

Maintaining an Afghan force of 350,000 soldiers and police, the level which will be reached this year, will require $6 billion a year. Yet the Obama administration wants to provide only $4.1 billion a year. That would require laying off 120,000 soldiers and cops—a move that would significantly destabilize Afghanistan without producing significant savings in a $3.8 trillion U.S. budget.

If we avoid such unforced errors and stick with the plans developed by Gens. Stanley McChrystal, David Petraeus and John Allen, we have a good chance to maintain a pro-Western regime in power. The Taliban are too weak to defeat us or our Afghan allies. But we can defeat ourselves.

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