Retreater in Chief

The Weekly Standard

October 1, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 03

Things are getting ugly in Afghanistan. Taliban insurgents somehow managed to penetrate the coalition’s main base in Helmand Province, Camp Bastion, and blow up six Marine Corps Harrier jump jets and damage two others, making this the greatest single-day loss of American warplanes since the Vietnam war. (The Harrier squadron commander, Lt. Col. Christopher Raible, was killed in the attack.) Another Taliban suicide bomber struck in Kabul, killing a dozen people, including contract workers for the U.S. embassy. Oh, and there have been more “green on blue” killings, bringing to 51 (and counting) the number of coalition troops killed this year by Afghan security personnel.

These attacks have led the U.S. Special Forces to suspend training of new recruits for the Afghan Local Police, a critical force designed to supplement the regular police and army, and more recently the NATO command to suspend at least temporarily joint operations with the Afghans below the battalion level. The most common and important security operations are carried out in small units—squads, platoons, and companies, not battalions or brigades. If the ban persists, it will cripple the effort of U.S. forces to improve the combat performance of their Afghan counterparts.

Amid such serious setbacks, what do we get from the administration? Robotic statements from White House press secretary Jay Carney that the timeline for withdrawing personnel—now, with the surge completed just days ago, numbering 68,000 U.S. troops, down from a wartime high of 100,000—remains unaffected. And from Defense Secretary Leon Panetta we hear that the recent Taliban attacks are insignificant—merely the “last gasp” of a defeated insurgency. It is hard to take seriously such blithe assurances, which recall the dark days of both the Vietnam and Iraq wars when our leaders told us that we should not believe the evidence of our own eyes—that, despite all signs to the contrary, there was light at the end of the tunnel.

This is not to suggest by any stretch of the imagination that things are as bad in Afghanistan as they were in Vietnam in 1967 or in Iraq in 2007. The overall level of violence is much lower, and there has been demonstrable progress as a result of President Obama’s surge. Coalition troops have managed to clear the Taliban out of many of their sanctuaries in Helmand and Kandahar Provinces. The buildup of the Afghan security forces, which are now 350,000 strong, is proceeding despite the dangers posed by insider attack. There have even been some scattered successes in improving the delivery of local services in districts that have been major centers of coalition activity.

But let’s not kid ourselves. The Taliban (and related groups, such as the even-more-fanatical Haqqani network), are far from defeated. They remain secure in their Pakistan sanctuaries, which a decade’s worth of American efforts have done nothing to dislodge. The Taliban even maintain many sanctuaries within Afghanistan itself, particularly in eastern Afghanistan, where the coalition has never had enough troops to do the kind of “clear, hold, and build” operations that have been conducted in the south. And the state of Afghan governance remains poor, with outrageously corrupt and abusive officials—the greatest recruiting agents the Taliban could possibly have—still in office despite half-hearted American efforts to root them out.

The greatest cause for despair is the lack of presidential leadership. President Obama notoriously refuses to talk about the war, to explain setbacks, and to tell the American people how his plan for victory will work. “Victory” is not, in fact, a word he ever uses. Instead he talks mainly about how he is “ending the war,” by which he means pulling U.S. troops out—thereby making a bigger war more likely. Obama never granted the generals as many troops as they requested (Gen. Stanley McChrystal had said that 40,000 reinforcements were necessary to keep risk at a moderate level; Obama sent only 30,000), and he pulled out the surge troops faster than the generals wanted (Gen. David Petraeus had recommended keeping the surge forces through the summer of 2013 or at least until the end of 2012; Obama has already pulled them out).

Obama’s determination to withdraw is plainly evident to Afghans, friend and foe alike—and undercuts the assurances of continuing American commitment contained in the U.S.-Afghan Strategic Partnership Agreement signed earlier this year. The Taliban are obviously expecting, with all U.S. combat troops gone by the end of 2014, that they will be able to make up lost ground. And those Afghans who are allied with the United States are visibly nervous, wondering if they should make accommodations with the Taliban lest they wind up on the losing side. This could well account, at least in part, for Karzai’s willingness to break publicly with the United States on numerous issues; it could even help to explain why some renegade soldiers and police turn their guns on their coalition partners.

In some ways the current situation—with an uncertain and likely deteriorating situation on the ground accompanied by unconvincing assurances from the top that everything is much better than you think—reminds us of Iraq in 2006. Only a surge of troops and a change of strategy—making victory rather than withdrawal the military objective—saved us from defeat in Iraq. Afghanistan could undoubtedly use a troop surge today and a greater focus on defeating the insurgency rather than simply handing off the fight to Afghans. But that is unlikely because of the extreme war weariness back home. Even Republican lawmakers who have so far been stalwart in support of a war effort directed since 2009 by a president of the other party are so fed up that they are openly discussing the advisability of a complete pullout rather than see more of our brave troops killed or maimed in a losing cause.

We sympathize with the criticisms that lawmakers are making and agree it is high time for President Obama to reevaluate his strategy and to explain more fully to the American people just what we are doing in Afghanistan and how we are doing it. That said, bad as the situation is today, we should not ignore the probability that an American pullout could make things far worse. Sen. Lindsey Graham has recently been quoted as saying: “What happens when you leave? Tell me a scenario where we’re safer by pulling the plug on Afghanistan. .  .  . I can’t envision a scenario that doesn’t lead to holy hell .  .  . and I can’t envision a scenario where another 9/11 doesn’t come about.”

Like Sen. Graham, we can’t imagine how America’s security could be improved by a hasty departure from Afghanistan. Our withdrawal would probably plunge the country into civil war. The last time that happened, in the 1990s, the Taliban emerged victorious. There is every reason to expect that, with Pakistan’s support, they would come out on top again. Taliban leaders have promised not to allow their territory to be used as a staging ground for attacks abroad, but there is no more reason to trust them now than in the 1990s. The Taliban have had numerous opportunities to break with al Qaeda and other malign groups and they have consistently refused to do so. The Haqqani network is even more closely linked to the terrorist nexus in Pakistan.

If the Taliban do take power in Afghanistan, it is certain to have a corrosive impact on Pakistan’s already fragile stability, raising the nightmare possibility of jihadists getting their hands on nuclear weapons. And, of course, a victory for jihadists over the last remaining superpower—which is how an American pullout from Afghanistan would be perceived in the Middle East, regardless of how it was spun by the White House—would be a big boost for al Qaeda in Iraq and other extremist groups which already have found openings in Libya, Syria, and other countries thrown into turmoil by the Arab Spring.

The present path in Afghanistan—of drift and drawdown—is discouraging. But hard as it may be to swallow, Republicans—including their presidential nominee, Mitt Romney—need to avoid the counsels of despair and to push for a robust, long-term American engagement that can stabilize Afghanistan and prevent al Qaeda’s allies from once again taking over.