Leaving Afghanistan?

On Monday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, speaking in Kabul, stated that the United States “will be well-positioned to begin drawing down some U.S. and coalition forces this July.”  But as Greg Jaffe of the Washington Post reports, the planned reductions likely wouldn’t lead to a major change in the U.S. mission in Afghanistan. Indeed, even as Gates is stating that the United States will adhere to its date to begin withdrawing troops, negotiations are in the works that could establish a long-term security presence for the U.S. beyond 2014 and might include permanent military bases.

Secretary Gates and General Petraeus both claim progress in Afghanistan.  But their concepts of progress are murky and exist within a strategy that has never had clearly defined objectives.

Today, I attended a discussion on U.S. strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan hosted by the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.  The other attendees included journalists, think tankers, and government professionals—former and current.  On The Skeptics blog, I outlined some of the important points of discussion that I think help explain our broader problems in the region.

I would characterize the general mood as grim. A few attendees pointed to the killing of a number of Taliban figures in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, and reports of progress in Marja and the rest of Helmand province as evidence of progress. These gains, one speaker maintained, were sustainable and would not necessarily slip in the event that U.S. forces are directed elsewhere.

(Giles) Dorronsoro (visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment), disputed these assertions. He judged that the situation today is worse than it was a year ago, before the surge of 30,000 additional troops. The killing of individual Taliban leaders, or foot-soldiers, was also accompanied by the inadvertent killing of innocent bystanders, including most recently nine children. So there is always the danger that even targeted strikes based on timely, credible intelligence, will over the long term replace one dead Talib with two or four or eight of his sons, brothers, cousins, and tribesman. How many people have said “We can’t kill our way to victory”?

For Dorronsoro, the crucial metric is security, not number of bad guys and suspected bad guys killed. And, given that he can’t drive to places that he freely visited two or three years ago, he judges that security in the country has gotten worse, not better. Many U.S. and Western troops cannot leave their bases without encountering IEDs or more coordinated attacks from insurgents. U.S. and NATO forces don’t control territory, and there is little reason to think that they can. Effective counterinsurgencies (COIN) are waged by a credible local partner, a government that commands the respect and authority of its citizens. That obviously doesn’t exist in Afghanistan. The Afghan militia, supposedly the key to long-term success, is completely ineffective.

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