President Obama was quite vague on the actual use of the additional 34,000 US troops and the additional 6,000 NATO troops. Come to think of it, he was kind of vague as to where these 6,000 additional troops would come from, also. Basically, all we heard were some watered-down COIN cliches, with assurances that the new troops would “break the momentum” of the Taliban’s gains, and train the new Afghan security forces—a badly-broken institution, to be sure. Most shockingly of all, however, within 18 months, the already sparse troop presence will be mostly gone.
I realize that Afghanistan is a Gordian knot, and there’s no plan President Obama could come up with that I wouldn’t be at least somewhat cynical towards. I think that many of us, after months of deliberations, were expecting the world’s most amazing plan—a plan which would turn Afghanistan into a thriving Jeffersonian Democracy in exchange for little investment on our part. Certainly, that’s not realistic. Nor are the options on the extremes—a pure counter-terror campaign directed against al Qaeda would look more like Somalia circa October 1993 or Iraq circa 2005-2006, and a full-blown counterinsurgency campaign with a whole-of-government approach could take place for decades, with Afghanistan still being, well, Afghanistan. Meanwhile, al Qaeda and its affiliates are taking up root in other countries such as Yemen and Somalia. Our struggle against terrorist organizations should not resemble a high-dollar game of world-wide whack-a-mole.
That President Obama must find a compromise between extricating ourselves from Afghanistan and allowing us to “bow out gracefully” with some semblance of Afghan security is clear. However, in his attempt to please all sides of the debate—the COINdinistas, the Counter-Terror crowd, the “leave now” crowd, you name it—he’s wound up creating a plan that will please no one. A troop surge of 34,000 might be the extent of what the US can provide strategically (based on available brigades projected by the Washington Independent, and available logistical support), but it’s not going to “break the back” of the Taliban, especially not when they know they only need to sit tight in Pakistan and wait about 18 months until ISAF begins to withdraw. There’s little more than talk about how we’re going to root out corruption in Afghanistan—one of the leading contributors to the Taliban’s reluctant popularity among Pashtuns. There’s no talk about pressuring “our valuable ally” Pakistan to not only fight the Afghan Taliban, but also to stop elements within their own security forces from actively aiding them.
And while we’re not bowing out with a lasting assurance of security, we’re not doing it on the cheap, either. The average Soldier in Afghanistan takes over $1 million to sustain for a year. It seems as if we might be combining the worst of both worlds. More troops over a few more years (say, a sustained presence for five more years) might be enough to bow out gracefully.
In sum, there’s a lot worse it could be. It could be President Bush’s 2004 speech in Fort Bragg, where he noted that, although the insurgency was gripping Iraq, we were not going to send more troops, because that would indicate that we had made a tactical error—therefore we were going to “hold the course” and keep doing what obviously didn’t work. However, it’s not going to produce the almost-miraculous results that the Iraq Surge did in 2007. Maybe we’ll have to be content with Afghanistan being Afghanistan.