What does failure in Afghanistan look like? A new Pentagon report is damning for the Obama administration: only one of the 23 Afghan army brigades is able to operate without Western support, the country as a whole is more violent than before the surge, and attacks on coalition forces by supposedly friendly Afghan partners are up significantly. Most of those metrics can be shaded: For instance, Afghan troops now conduct most of the routine patrols in the country, violence is down in Kabul and Kandahar, and friendly attacks are still comparatively rare. But one key fact is inescapable: the Taliban’s momentum has not been blunted. This was a key measure of success for the Obama administration:
Obama administration officials have said that progress in the war in large part depends on whether the Taliban could rebuild after the hammering it took during the surge, when American forces, with 33,000 additional troops, aggressively pursued insurgents and drove them from critical territory in the south.
But the report was blunt in its assessment of the Taliban’s current strength. “The Taliban-led insurgency remains adaptive and determined, and retains the capability to emplace substantial numbers of I.E.D.s and to conduct isolated high-profile attacks,” the report said, using the term for homemade bombs. “The insurgency also retains a significant regenerative capacity.”
Predictable, really. If nothing else, setting a firm withdrawal date for 2014 gave the Taliban a huge morale boost. If they could outlast the coalition forces past that deadline, they would be well-positioned to dominate Afghanistan in the wake of the West’s withdrawal. And as things stand, the most hopeful future plans for Afghanistan circulating today downplay the U.S. role in determining the final outcome of a war it has been fighting for more than a decade and hinge on Pakistan’s agreeing to force the Taliban to lay down their arms in 2015 and form legitimate political parties.
Successful leadership this is not. Afghanistan, a war which has largely been relegated to the background given developments in the Middle East, is a war Obama took full ownership of in 2008. After all the blood and treasure spent pursuing muddled policy goals, an ignominious and difficult withdrawal could very well end up leaving a defining mark on the President’s foreign policy record.