Back when Afghanistan was seen as “the good war,” George W. Bush was much excoriated in the press and by his political adversaries because he failed to draft a timeline for withdrawal from Iraq. Instead, the former president preferred to double down on the Surge and then await the positive alignment of facts on the ground. His theory was that a date certain only bolstered the worst forces in Iraq, who knew exactly how long they would have to withstand coalition pressure, while demoralizing those who might be counted upon to team with us for a just peace.
After Iraq’s bloodlust had largely abated, his successor learned half the lesson and surged forces to Afghanistan. But he attached a date certain for the withdrawal of those forces, and now the military is living – and dying – with the consequences, according to Jackson Diehl from the Washington Post:
In Kandahar, the U.S. command may be suffering from a failure of nerve. It has stepped back from an initial push to challenge the entrenched and corrupt local power structure headed by Karzai’s half brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai. It has decided not to deploy U.S. troops in the city itself, other than military police working with Afghans. It has not moved to disarm, or even to cut off the Western funding of local militias — some of them controlled by the Karzai family. The result is that U.S. forces are seen by many Afghans as merely reinforcing what amounts to a local mafia that is not necessarily preferable to the Taliban.
Hanging over all these complexities, and driving some of them, is Obama’s imposition of a timeline on the Afghan surge: first a review of its progress this December, followed by the beginning of troop withdrawals in July 2011. The perception that the clock is ticking on the U.S. mission pushes Karzai toward building and defending his own family network, and favoring aides who can talk to Pakistan — and maybe the Taliban — over those close to the United States. It forces McChrystal to focus on producing easier and positive-looking results in the next few months, rather than committing to harder and longer-term solutions. It fuels continuing acrimony among military commanders, who believe the timetable is folly, and State Department and White House civilians, who regard it as the key to Obama’s policy.
(As) the summer comes on, and Washington occupies itself with other issues, the trend lines in Afghanistan do not look good.
Not all of this is the president’s fault of course. He inherited this war, and after all, Afghanistan was always going to be a tough nut to crack. But some of it is.
By learning half the lesson, President Obama may have chosen the worst possible course – doubling down on the human cost to our troops while failing to demonstrate sufficient resolve to see their mission through.
Ordinary Afghans have acutely attuned survival instincts, including a long history of hedging their bets. As 2011 comes nearer and US forces start edging towards the exit, we shouldn’t be surprised to see all our efforts thus far squandered.
None of this should surprise us. After all, we’ve been down this track before.