‘Huge Uncertainty’ in Afghanistan

CFR.org Interview

September 26, 2012

Interviewee: Max Boot, Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow for National Security Studies
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor

President Obama has withdrawn the last of the so-called 30,000 “surge troops” he sent to Afghanistan in 2009 and 2010, but Max Boot, a veteran military analyst for CFR, says there are “huge uncertainties about the outcome” in the country. He says that “we certainly do not have the sense of victory in sight that we saw in Iraq when the surge troops were pulled out of there.” Even though President Obama campaigned in 2008 on a platform of bolstering forces in Afghanistan, “he has done very little to rally public support for the war effort, again because I think he’s fundamentally ambivalent about the war himself,” Boot says. He also says there are significant questions about long-term U.S. commitment “because neither President Obama nor [Republican presidential nominee] Governor Mitt Romney is eager to talk about Afghanistan.”

In his 2012 speech to the UN General Assembly, President Obama devoted exactly one line to Afghanistan, saying: “We’ve begun a transition in Afghanistan, and America and our allies will end our war on schedule in 2014.” What are your thoughts on the situation in Afghanistan?


As the last of the surge troops have returned home, the situation in Afghanistan remains very fragile and uncertain. The surge troops made demonstrable gains in the south, where they were concentrated. They had taken away many of the Taliban strongholds in Helmand and Kandahar provinces. But President Obama never sent as many surge troops as the generals had requested, and therefore made it impossible to simultaneously carry out operations in areas to the east and directly to the south of Kabul. As a result, the NATO command was never able to carry out the kind of “clear and hold” operations in those areas that were carried out in the south. There are still Haqqani sanctuaries located a few hours’ drive from Kabul, with an especially dangerous situation in Wardak and Ghazni provinces, located between Kabul and Kandahar.


What did the commanders want?


The commanders were denied the opportunity to carry out simultaneous operations in the south and east. That became impossible when Obama decided to bring the surge troops home at the end of this month, a date which had no military justification whatsoever and was directly in contravention of the best military advice that he received from General David Petraeus and other commanders, who suggested keeping the troops through the 2013 summer fighting season or at very least until the end of this year. But now the troops have been pulled out during the 2012 fighting season, which is a real handicap for commanders trying to cement long-term success.


What does the future indicate?


There are still huge challenges that remain on the ground, including the fact that the Taliban and the Haqqani still have secure sanctuaries in Pakistan, as well as the fact that the level of corruption remains high in Afghanistan and the level of government capacity remains relatively low. There are also significant question marks about the depth and extent of the long-term U.S. commitment because neither President Obama nor [Republican presidential nominee] Governor Mitt Romney is eager to talk about Afghanistan. And when President Obama does talk about it, it’s exclusively in terms of his desire to withdraw American troops. He seldom ever talks about what success would look like and how we’re going to achieve it.


How is the Taliban faring?


Although the Taliban has certainly been set back by the coalition operations of the last several years, they retain significant capacity, as we’ve seen in recent weeks with the audacious attack on Camp Bastion, the main coalition base in Helmand province where they managed to destroy six AV-8B Harrier jets and do damage to two others, which was the greatest single-day loss of American combat aircraft since the Vietnam war. That’s an indication of the kind of capacity they still retain.

There is also a threat from insider attacks, which have led to a temporary suspension of operations between coalition and Afghan troops at the lower levels.

So these are all significant challenges, which create huge uncertainties about the outcome in Afghanistan. We certainly do not have the sense of victory in sight that we saw in Iraq when the surge troops were pulled out of there.


Obama campaigned on a platform of doing more in the Afghan war. Why did the president shift so dramatically from seeming to be being enthusiastic about winning the Afghan war, to almost hoping no one notices it?


Well it’s hard to intuit his thinking. I think the cynical explanation would be that his heart was never really in Afghanistan in the first place, that it was just a convenient campaign ploy during 2008 when he was campaigning as the person who was going to get us out of Iraq. He wanted to demonstrate that he was not dovish, that he was going to be tough on our enemies, and he called Afghanistan the central front on the war on terrorism and it was the “necessary war” and we had to win.


But then when he came into office, he was actually confronted with a hard military analysis of what was required to win. It was a lot more than he had talked about during the campaign, when he was talking about sending one or two brigades, which would have been 5,000 to 10,000 troops to Afghanistan. At that point, there were a lot of people in the administration led by Vice President Biden, who were arguing we don’t need to have a big build-up, we don’t need to do counterinsurgency, we can just keep a small special operations footprint and rely on that.


Whereas the consensus of his military advisors, Secretary of Defense Gates, General Petraeus, General Stanley McChrystal, and even Secretary of State Clinton was: We need to make a much more ambitious commitment if we [are] to prevent the Taliban from retaking Kandahar city and much of Afghanistan. At that point, my read is that Obama was ambivalent and he tried to split the difference by sending more troops, but not quite as many as the generals wanted, but more than the Biden faction wanted, and by also putting a timeline on the commitment, which is something the military did not want.


This may have made sense from a political perspective, because in politics, success is often in the art of compromise. The problem is it doesn’t make sense on the battlefield because you’re fighting a determined enemy, and doing things halfway can result not in a half measure of success, but in total defeat.

That’s my best read of what’s been going on.


When the United States launched its initial attack in Afghanistan at the end of 2001, there was of course great enthusiasm as the U.S. troops marched into Kabul with their Afghan allies. But now no one even ever talks about Afghanistan. Why did Americans lose interest?


I think primarily because the war has dragged on for so long. Depending on how you count it, it’s the longest war in American history, or at least the longest overseas war. And it’s gone on year after year and the public has lost interest. There is an inherent boredom and a lack of interest in what’s going on because it’s a war being fought by a tiny percentage of the population, often isolated from the mainstream of society.

The troops care, their families care, their friends care, but very few other Americans care.

And that’s exacerbated by the fact that President Obama, amazingly enough, even though he’s ordered all these troops into harm’s way, almost refuses to talk about what they’re doing or why it’s important or the progress of their mission. So he has done very little to rally public support for the war effort, again because I think he’s fundamentally ambivalent about the war himself.


How good are the Afghan troops who are now left alone to fight the Taliban?


I hope that the Afghan troops will not be left alone to fight the Taliban even after 2014. They have actually improved tremendously in many ways over the last several years, their numbers have expanded up to 350,000 and the competency, especially of the Afghan army, has expanded significantly. They are largely respected by the Afghan people. Polls show that the Afghan army is [one of] the most respected institutions in Afghan society. They are not viewed as being sectarian; they do have a balance between Pashtuns, and Tajiks and Hazaris and other ethnic groups. But there are several problems, largely at the upper levels. While the troops fight hard, the infrastructure to support them is really not up to where it needs to be yet.


These are all capabilities where American advisors play a vital role. And I think the Afghan army can continue to perform competently, and can continue to do what it is doing now. But it’s going to need a substantial advise-and-assist force even after 2014 to keep them operating, because if you pull out that backbone of the Afghan forces, the whole force is going to collapse.


Are U.S. advisers still helping out on intelligence and training, and does the United States still have helicopters helping out the Afghan troops?


Absolutely. There are still some 68,000 U.S. forces in the country and U.S. advisory teams are embedded at various levels of the Afghan military, but the greatest support that the Afghan army receives right now is not so much from the embedded advisers, it’s from the coalition units that are operating on the ground alongside of them. That is why it is of such concern that cooperation at the level below battalion has been suspended because of these insider attacks. If that suspension stays in place for any substantial period of time, it’s going to take away the number one tool that U.S. forces have to improve the combat effectiveness of the Afghan army, which is simply working alongside of them, showing them how to do things by example, and also providing fire support, and they have access to med evacs. That partnering relationship is at the heart of what is improving the performance of the Afghan army.


Earlier in the year there was a lot of talk about possible negations between the U.S. and Afghan governments and the Taliban to have a cease fire agreement. Whatever happened to those negotiations?


They went nowhere, and it’s hard to see any reason why they would go anywhere because what incentive do the Taliban have to make any concessions when they think that we’re going to leave after 2014. Their strategy is simply to wait us out and take over the country once were gone. They’ve certainly suffered setbacks, but they are not convinced that the Afghan government and security forces will last or that we will have a long-term commitment to Afghanistan. And as long as that’s the case and as long as they continue to enjoy sanctuaries in Pakistan, they have no real reason to negotiate seriously.


Has Mitt Romney had anything to say about Afghanistan?


He thinks that setting a timeline for departure is a mistake, but in general terms he does support the 2014 deadline, and [says] that when he comes into office he would meet with his military advisers to reach the best decision in terms of how to proceed on troop levels. We’ve had a drawdown to 68,000 troops now. President Obama has said that he would wait until after the election to make any further decisions about any further drawdowns. But that’s going to be the first line of business confronting the next president, which is how many more troops are we going to take out of Afghanistan and on what timeline.