Standing alongside British prime minister David Cameron, President Obama declared, “This is a hard slog. This is hard work. When I came into office, there had been drift in the Afghan strategy, in part because we had spent a lot of time focusing on Iraq instead. Over the last three years, we have refocused attention on getting Afghanistan right. Would my preference have been that we started some of that earlier? Absolutely. But that’s not the cards that we’re dealt.”
The problem with this is that it was a slog of Obama’s choosing.
Yes, he inherited a mess from President Bush, if one for which he spent two years vigorously campaigning to inherit. Again and again during the 2008 campaign, the then junior senator from Illinois proclaimed that Afghanistan was the necessary war that we had too long given short shrift because we took our eye off the ball and devoted so many resources to the war of choice in Iraq.
Still, Obama wouldn’t have been the first president to reverse himself on a major policy issue once in office. Few could have blamed him had he declared soon after taking office that, because of years of delay in resourcing the problem, our objectives were no longer achievable, and it was time to pare back. He could have blamed Bush. Or argued, reasonably enough, that the greatest economic crisis in generations has reordered America’s strategic priorities.
Instead, he chose to double down.
Less than four months after taking office, Obama fired David McKiernan as commander in Afghanistan in favor of special-operations legend Stanley McChrystal, saying that we needed to have our A-team there. He also said that he considered Afghanistan and Pakistan to be a single theater, which he coined “AfPak,” and drastically widened the war effort.
In his December 2009 West Point speech, Obama declared: “I am convinced that our security is at stake in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This is the epicenter of the violent extremism practiced by al Qaeda.” And, kicking off the so-called Afghan surge, he declared, “We must deny al Qaeda a safe-haven. We must reverse the Taliban’s momentum and deny it the ability to overthrow the government. And we must strengthen the capacity of Afghanistan’s Security Forces and government, so that they can take lead responsibility for Afghanistan’s future.”
Obama ordered an additional thirty thousand troops be sent into the theater, and McChrystal substantially increased the pace and aggressiveness of operations. As a consequence, we’ve lost more than twice the number of Americans in Obama’s three years than we did during the eight years of the war effort under Bush.
Yet we’ve failed to get appreciably closer to any of those objectives.
Al-Qaeda had long ceased to have a significant presence in Afghanistan when Obama took office. To be sure, Osama bin Laden is now dead, and al-Qaeda’s senior leadership in AfPak is, by most accounts, weakened. But we got bin Laden in a SOCOM raid in Pakistan, not as a consequence of the Afghan slog. And the fight in the “Af” part of AfPak is with the Taliban, not al-Qaeda.
If anything, the Taliban’s “momentum” appears to be on the upswing—although many experts believe it has neither the ability nor the desire to resume control of the central government. And, goodness knows, American confidence in the Karzai government and the Afghan security forces are at an all-time low.
Recent events have only exacerbated a gloomy situation. A stupidly orchestrated burning of Korans and other religious documents by American troops, combined with inflammatory rhetoric by Karzai and other Afghan leaders, helped ignite a spree of murder and mayhem. This was closely followed by a massacre of Afghan women and children by an American staff sergeant, apparently intoxicated and brain damaged. And the murder of American soldiers and marines by the very Afghan forces they’ve worked so hard to train has now become almost commonplace.
These incidents have poisoned opinion on both sides, perhaps permanently. Afghans who view Americans as occupiers and infidels with no respect for their society and culture feel vindicated–as do Americans who view Afghans as barbaric holdovers from bygone centuries.
Throughout it all, Karzai has proven craven and duplicitous, hedging his bets rather than leading to tamp down tensions. Most recently, he has demanded that NATO forces leave Afghanistan’s rural areas and that the handover of security responsibility to Afghan forces, scheduled for 2014, be moved up to 2013. No matter that they’re demonstrably unready.
The bottom line is that we are no closer to “getting Afghanistan right” than we were when Obama took office, and there’s little appetite among the American public, American military or American allies to stick it out.
Advocates for continuing the fight despite these obstacles argue that the Taliban may come back if Americans leave now. And it well might. But that would be true in 2014, 2016 or 2025.
How many more Americans must die on this impossible slog?
James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council. This essay was originally published in The National Interest.