In his State of the Union speech two weeks ago, President Obama seemed to echo his predecessor’s extravagant “Mission Accomplished” declaration respecting the war in Iraq when he announced that in light of the substantial gains in the fight against the Taliban in Afghanistan, some 34,000 U.S. troops will return home by this time next year.
In terms of percentages, it will mean that half of the 66,000 U.S. soldiers will return home. And a senior administration official told CNN that reductions will continue through the end of 2014. Unfortunately, recent reports suggest that in fact the war in Afghanistan has been a failure and the latest evidence that the U.S. has not learned how to counter modern indigenous movements like the Taliban. Analysts are positing that modern technological developments in military power such as drones may provide a key part of the answer and permit us to play to our strengths in future conflicts.
A startling report two weeks ago in The New York Times provided a very different perspective from that of the president. Titled “U.S. Military Faces Fire as It Pulls Out of Afghanistan” it painted a picture reminiscent of the scene when U.S. personnel were spirited out of Saigon as the U.S. war effort in Vietnam collapsed.
The Times story was concerned the American withdrawal from an outpost in Southern Afghanistan on the same day President Obama announced the withdrawals:
They [the Americans] were leaving this violent patch of land outside Kandahar, the south’s main city, just as Taliban fighters were filtering back in from winter havens in Pakistan….
The Americans knew they would be most vulnerable in their final hours after taking down their surveillance and early-warning systems. The Taliban knew it, too, and intelligence reports indicated that they had been working with sympathetic villagers to strike at the departing soldiers.
The report went on to quote an American commander responsible for the nearby Zhare district as to how there are areas where “the Taliban can find sanctuary, and we still believe there is an informal network or support structure in place they can rely on.”
Plainly, the Taliban are an integral part of the landscape and can come and go with relative impunity even after a firefight temporarily gives U.S. forces and their Afghan allies temporary control of a particular piece of territory. Bringing even the full weight of U.S. military power to bear cannot be the enduring solution to insurgencies like that of the Taliban.
As this reality becomes starker, it is not surprising that Afghan President Hamid Karzai seems to be reconsidering his options and seeking peace talks with the Taliban. And he is receiving gentle pushes from his Western allies who also seem to see the handwriting on the wall. A Feb. 16 New York Times report delivered the depressing news:
Frozen for months last year as another fighting season raged in Afghanistan, and as election-year politics consumed U.S. attention, diplomats and political leaders from eight countries are now mounting the most concerted campaign to date to bring the Afghan government and its Taliban foes together to negotiate a peace deal….
Yet so far the energized reach for peace has achieved little, officials say, except to cement a growing consensus that regional stability demands some sort of political settlement with the Taliban – after a war that cost tens of thousands of Afghan and Western lives and nearly a trillion dollars failed to put down the insurgency.
Interviews with more than two dozen officials involved in the effort suggest a fast-spinning process that has yet to gain traction and seems to have little chance of achieving even its most limited goal: bringing the Afghan government and Taliban leadership together at the table before the bulk of the U.S. fighting force leaves Afghanistan in 2014.
Does anyone really believe the Afghan military alone can do what proved unachievable with massive U.S. assistance?
Mr. Karzai seems to think not, and in addition seems to feel it is in his long-term interests to make concessions to the Taliban even in advance of public discussions. Small wonder that last week he barred U.S. special forces troops from operating in the strategic province of Maidan Wardak, which adjoins the capital of Kabul and which is crucial to defending Kabul against the Taliban.
Through it all, the Taliban isn’t blinking. Indeed, Taliban leaders greeted President Obama’s announcement of the troop withdrawals by saying that Western governments “must salvage themselves from the protracted and pointless war in Afghanistan…. The Afghans should be granted control, choice of government and sovereignty of their country… If not…our sacred Jihad will intensify and forge ahead successfully even if one foreign soldier is present in our country….”
It seems time for America to reevaluate how it will relate to military challenges around the globe. The old saw that only boots on the ground can work has proved false and debilitating. Perhaps a mixture of reliance on the broad use of precision drone bombing accompanied by the old-fashioned carpet sort would get the attention of our adversaries without committing our troops. Afghanistan has demonstrated that current methods just can’t work when it comes to countering indigenous insurgencies.
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