By Ivan Eland
No one needs to tell the public that politicians are slick—and the ones who get elected are the oiliest. President Obama, in a recent speech announcing the phased withdraw of 33,000 U.S. surge forces from Afghanistan by September 2012, told the country that the United States had largely achieved its goals in Afghanistan and that “we are starting this drawdown from a position of strength.” The public could be forgiven for missing the real message: “We’ve lost the war, but we are declaring victory anyway and getting out.”
The reality of withdrawing 33,000 of about 100,000 troops in that country is that the president’s “counterinsurgency” strategy—the U.S. clearing areas of Taliban forces until “good government” can take hold and the Afghan forces are competent enough to take over—has failed. The strategy was designed to achieve battlefield gains that would not eradicate the Taliban but cause the group to come to the negotiating table. Although the Taliban is negotiating, it is not doing so seriously because it knows it is winning the war. If it were losing, more Taliban would be defecting to the Afghan government; so far, only 1,700 out of between 25,000 and 40,000 insurgents have done so.
Superior U.S. forces have cleared some areas of the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar, traditionally Taliban strongholds, but they only have an illegitimate, corrupt Afghan government and incompetent Afghan security forces to hand them over to. Yet it is still nearly impossible to drive safely from the capital of Kabul to Kandahar. Furthermore, the Taliban merely lies low in those two provinces until the U.S. leaves, or they move to other parts of the country where American forces are much more sparse. The Taliban in eastern Afghanistan—which have more links to al-Qaeda than those in the south but who have enjoyed less U.S. attention—can withdraw to sanctuaries in Pakistan. The U.S. and NATO have never had enough forces in Afghanistan to run an effective counterinsurgency strategy. And if the insurgents are not losing, they are winning. Time is on their side, because it’s their country and they can simply outwait the United States, which the insurgents know will eventually withdraw.
Since according to counterinsurgency expert William R. Polk, guerrilla warfare is 80 percent political, 15 percent administrative, and only 5 percent military, the U.S.-sponsored corrupt and illegitimate Afghan government is a major albatross around America’s neck. Also, even after Afghan security forces have been trained for almost a decade, they are incapable of securing Afghanistan on their own.
Yet if there hasn’t been a terrorist threat from Afghanistan for seven to eight years, as the Obama administration maintains, then why did we need the surge and 18-month counterinsurgency strategy in the first place, and why can’t troops come home faster? The answer is that the withdrawal timetable is not based on military considerations but on electoral politics.
Instead of going against the Taliban during the next fighting season, those 33,000 troops already will have been withdrawn or will be packing to leave Afghanistan by September 2012. Thus, with an eye toward the November 2012 presidential election, Obama can say that the surge is over, that it was a success, and that all surge forces have been withdrawn. But if the withdrawal table is political, why not claim the same victory and remove all 100,000 U.S. troops to satisfy a war-weary public?
Richard Nixon faced the same dilemma presiding over the lost Vietnam War. In 1971, he wanted to withdraw U.S. forces from South Vietnam until Henry Kissinger reminded him that the place would likely fall apart in 1972, the year Nixon was up for reelection. To avoid this scenario, Nixon unconscionably delayed a peace settlement until 1973, thus trading more wasted American lives for his reelection.
Obama appears to be up to the same thing. A phased withdrawal of 33,000 U.S. troops before the election will push back at Republican candidates’ demands for more rapid withdrawal and signal to the conflict-fatigued American public that he is solving the problem, while leaving 70,000 forces to make sure the country doesn’t collapse before that election. Again, American lives will be needlessly lost so that a slick politician can look his best at election time.