I am probably the only person in the United States who actually likes the fact that President Obama set an 18 month timetable for the beginning of a drawdown of US forces in Afghanistan in his speech on Tuesday night. Republicans have been attacking it because they say that it sends a signal of weak resolve, and that the Taliban now know that they only have to wait us out. Opponents of our engagement ask why the drawdown can’t begin immediately, and wonder whether the deadline isn’t just a sop to them to make the escalation decision more palatable. It has all the hallmarks of a political compromise rather than a thought-out strategy.
I think that setting a date for the beginning of a withdrawal actually sends a good signal, but to very different audiences than either the Taliban on the one hand, or to dovish Americans on the other. The two most important targets are the US commanders on the ground, and the Afghan government.
The whole problem with the US approach to counterinsurgency, not just in Afghanistan but stretching all the way back to Vietnam and before, was the fact that the US has never sufficiently emphasized training indigenous forces as the core of what they are to do in a military intervention. There are a number of reasons for this, most importantly the fact that no US commander will ever want to fight an enemy with poorly trained and resourced indigenous forces when he could use American troops. But in the end, no counterinsurgency war will ever be won with foreign forces taking the lead. Nor will there ever be an exit for the US from the conflict other than humiliating defeat unless there is an indigenous government and army to eventually carry the burden.
One of the reasons that we are in our current Afghan pickle is the fact that we never invested enough in training high quality Afghan forces from the moment we toppled the regime in Kabul back in 2001. The Afghan National Army (ANA) is by all accounts reasonably well trained, but is ridiculously small in comparison to the job they must shoulder. The police on the other hand have been a disaster from the beginning. Police training was first delegated to the Germans, and then to contractors like Dyncorp, and greatly under-resourced. Most Afghans run the other way when they see a policeman coming, such is their reputation for corruption and brutality. We now have commanders in the theater who understand the importance of training, but they will still have incentives to rely on American forces if the latter are readily available.
Setting a timetable for the withdrawal of US forces puts both US commanders and the Afghan government under the gun (so to speak) to get sufficient indigenous forces in place to fill in behind departing US troops. It will also motivate them to get very creative in persuading as many Pushtun tribesmen as possible to switch sides, or to at least cease supporting the Taliban. The Afghan government has been less than serious about shouldering its part of the burden as well, because it has been able to take US backing for granted.
During the civil war in El Salvador during the 1980s, the Democrats in Congress put very sharp ceilings on the number of active duty US service personnel who could serve there—some 57 in total, if my memory serves. I remember being outraged at the time that Congress was meddling to this degree and depriving US commanders of what they thought was necessary to fight the war. But in the end it proved to be a very good move. The low ceiling on American combat forces compelled the commanders there to get fully serious about training and equipping the Salvadorian army, who in any event had better local knowledge who and what they were fighting. The army reversed the tide and put the FMLN under heavy pressure, which then paved the way for the eventual accord that ended the war.
In this respect the added 30,000 troops now going to Afghanistan could prove to be a real trap, if they are seen as anything other than a temporary bridge while we build indigenous capacity and make the appropriate political deals. It is not clear whether this will work, but we will have a better idea in a couple of years. If it doesn’t, then we will need to figure out how to make an exit in any event.
Anyone who thinks that the Taliban are now suddenly encouraged by the administration’s announcement of a timetable needs to engage in a little reality check. The American public is simply not going to support a large, open-ended commitment to fight in Afghanistan. So we are either bluffing or kidding ourselves if we say today that we will bear any burden in this fight. Our interests there are simply not great enough to merit that. It is true that Afghans will not side with us if they know in advance we are leaving. But what is much worse is pretending to them that we will stick it out over the long haul, and then leaving anyway because we actually didn’t mean it. In the history of our foreign policy we have unfortunately made these kinds of hollow promises far too often.
I doubt that the Obama administration has justified its strategy to itself in the terms I just laid out. Among other reasons is the fact that they continue to set an unreasonably low limit on how many indigenous ANA forces they intend to train and equip. My main hope is that they will stumble upon the right strategy by the logic of events. The process has not looked pretty up to this point, but that does not preclude the possibility of a good outcome.