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The Afghan Surge Was A Failure

The Afghan Surge, announced by President Obama in a speech at West Point, came to an end last week when the last of the 33,000 troops sent to Afghanistan as part of the surge came home. Among the purposes of the surge was to reduce the ability of insurgent forces to attack ISAF and Afghan troops and to restore order to areas like Helmund Province, which has been a hotbed of insurgent and Taliban activity for years now. Today, Spencer Ackerman takes a look at the Pentagon’s own records to determine just how successful the surge actually was:

The U.S. troop surge in Afghanistan ended last week. Conditions in Afghanistan are mostly worse than before it began.

That conclusion doesn’t come from anti-war advocates. It relies on data recently released by the NATO command in Afghanistan, known as ISAF, and acquired by Danger Room. According to most of the yardsticks chosen by the military — but not all — the surge in Afghanistan fell short of its stated goal: stopping the Taliban’s momentum.

(…)

In August 2009, insurgents used just under 600 homemade bombs on U.S.-aligned forces. They used just over 600 homemade bombs on U.S.-aligned forces in August 2012.

The same trend holds for every other month in 2009 compared to every month in 2012 for which there is data: The insurgency launched more attacks this year. In some cases, substantially more: insurgents attacked about 2,000 times in July 2009 and a shade over 3,000 times in July 2012. ISAF registered about 475 attacks from homemade bombs in July 2009; and about 625 in July 2012.

Other data provided by ISAF, measuring the changes in attack patterns during the summer fighting seasons, show that the 30,000-plus surge troops cumulatively suppressed summer attacks in 2011 and 2012. 2012-s summer attacks have maintained 2011 levels — something recently acknowledged by Marine Gen. John Allen, who cautioned that any dip from 2011 “may not be statistically significant.”

But that suppressive force provided by the surge did not tamp down insurgent activity to levels seen in 2009, when Afghanistan looked sufficiently dire that a bipartisan consensus of Washington policymakers came to believe that a surge was necessary.

Ackerman also provides the chart below which. shows attacks by Taliban and other insurgent forces on ISAF forces. The occasional dips in the number of attacks are a reflection of the fact that there has a been a seasonal lull in the fighting since the beginning of the war itself. In August 2009 during the height of the fighting season, though, there wer roughly 2,700 attacks on ISAF forces by insurgents. In August 2012, there were roughly 3,000 attacks. Additionally, as Ackerman notes, 988 American soldiers have died since the day President Obama announced the troop surge.

Given these numbers, it’s hard to see exactly what it is that the surge accomplished. Afghanistan is no more peaceful than it was three years ago. Our goal of training the Afghan military and police forces so that they can take over controlling security of the country by 2014 has been imperiled by massive uptick in the number of attacks on ISAF troops by Afghan personnel that were supposed to be working together with them. Meanwhile, the Taliban doesn’t seem to be any weaker than it was in 2009 and may even have become stronger if the “Green On Blue” attacks are any indication. Indeed, an attack earlier this month on a joint U.S.-British base in central Afghanistan resulted in one of the worst lost of U.S. air assets since the Vietnam War as the attack took out six Marine Harrier jets as they sat on the ground. Taking all of that into account it’s hard to see how the surge can be described as anything other than an utter failure.

One thing this points out is the error that those who were advocating the surge in 2009 made in trying to argue that a strategy that succeeded in one country would succeed in another. Fresh off what seemed to be, and for the most part was, the success of General David Petraeus’s surge, there were many people who believed that the same strategy would clearly work in Afghanistan. As Kevin Drum notes, however, the success of the Iraq surge was due as much to what was happening in the country at the time as it was to the fact that we sent a large number of additional troops into the country. Those factors didn’t exist in Afghanistan and they don’t exist now, so it’s really not a surprise that the same strategy would lead to completely different results. In reality, history should have taught us that throwing more troops into a nation like Afghanistan doesn’t necessary lead to success. The Soviets learned that lesson during their own ten year ordeal in the country.

With the surge finally over and the plan to hand over power by 2014 still in place notwithstanding our recent problems with our Afghan “friends,” we seem to still be on the course to get out of this engagement on schedule. At this point, though, I don’t really see any good reason why we can’t or shouldn’t ramp up that schedule and get most of our troops home rather than having them continue to be targets for the Taliban and the Afghan’s that they’re supposed to be training.

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. C. Clavin says:

    Afghan was lost by Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld and the rest of the Neocons.
    Obama needlessly prolonged the suffering.
    The future of Afghanistan, and it’s people, is bleak.
    We should take care of those who helped us by getting them the f’ out of there now.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 1

  2. Mike says:

    @C. Clavin:

    Afghanistan wasn’t “lost,” it was never ours to lose. Punitive expedition after 9/11 to break the al-Qaida stronghold? Absolutely. Remaining for 12 years (and counting) undertaking a nation building effort because for some reason a landlocked geopolitical backwater in Central Asia with a GDP somewhere in the bottom 5 worldwide is considered central to U.S. interests? Strategic lunacy.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 16 Thumb down 0

  3. @Mike:

    Indeed. We never should have tied our interests to the political future of Afghanistan. There was a brief time in the 1960s, when it was under a basically Constitutional Monarchy, that the nation was among the most modern in the Muslim world but it’s gone far down hill since then and it is basically ungovernable at this point.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 0

  4. C. Clavin says:

    @ Mike…agreed. Total lunacy. And as an Obama supporter it is one my biggest disappointments in him that he extended the lunacy.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  5. michael reynolds says:

    Or we could have left the Russians (then Soviets) to manage the place. It seemed clever at the time to send helicopter-killing missiles to the mujahidin. Maybe not a great idea with benefit of hindsight.

    It’s not that Afghanistan could not be occupied and transformed. It’s that it couldn’t be done with politically-palatable 20th/21st century mores.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  6. @michael reynolds:

    You’re mostly right in that last sentence, but I’ve got to add that a nation isn’t going to be transformed if the people don’t want it imposed on them no matter how big the military force might be.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  7. john personna says:

    Many of us would like a less adventurous foreign policy. The problem is that we have been in the minority. Some claim that Obama’s move toward hawkishness was a cynical move for re-election. Well, again that confirms that the majority view must still be somewhat hawkish.

    Yes, we can name minority candidates who would choose fewer foreign wars, and fewer drone attacks, but they don’t have the votes. That’s the sad reality.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 0

  8. JKB says:

    The surge was a failure when it was announced with an ending date. You win wars not by converting your enemy but by making him fear he will not survive or cannot survive as long as you. A pre-programmed end to the surge wasn’t a bad idea, telling the enemy was. Here’s a tip for the Harvard Law grads, you don’t tell the enemy your plans, you don’t tell him your level of supply, you don’t tell him you’ve got political pressure to cut and run. To the enemy, you must always look to be overwhelming and determined.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 13

  9. michael reynolds says:

    @JKB:

    Yeah, because the Taliban didn’t know all those things. They hadn’t noticed our supply line ran through Pakistan.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 0

  10. Me Me Me says:

    Is Osama Bin Laden still dead?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 2

  11. michael reynolds says:

    @JKB:

    You win wars not by converting your enemy but by making him fear he will not survive or cannot survive as long as you.

    One other point on the silliness of your comment. You think we were going to convince the Pashtuns that we’d outlast them? “They” live there. “We” live 10,000 miles away. That’s the same logic that had us “outlasting” the Vietnamese. In Vietnam.

    The only way to occupy successfully was by overwhelming force, ruthless violence and systematic bribery and propaganda over a long, long period of time. Theoretically could’ve been done, but sure as hell wasn’t going to get done on the cheap or by moving our army to Iraq.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 12 Thumb down 0

  12. Anderson says:

    Pakistan had and has more interest in keeping Afghanistan destabilized than we have in reforming it. The last thing Pakistan wants is a unified neighbor to the west that could conceivably ally with India.

    It would be a little like China’s coming in and deciding to occupy and straighten out Mexico.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  13. Rafer Janders says:

    @JKB:

    Here’s a tip for the Harvard Law grads, you don’t tell the enemy your plans, you don’t tell him your level of supply, you don’t tell him you’ve got political pressure to cut and run.

    How exactly do you deny the enemy access to the Internet and all newspapers, magazines and television in the world?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

  14. anjin-san says:

    You win wars not by converting your enemy but by making him fear he will not survive or cannot survive as long as you.

    You might want to check the track records of would be conquerors in Afghanistan. No one has has a lot of luck since Alexander the Great, and that includes some of the greatest military powers the world has ever known. I think there is a little more going on here than “Obama told them when we were leaving”…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 0

  15. Ron Beasley says:

    @Anderson:

    It would be a little like China’s coming in and deciding to occupy and straighten out Mexico.

    Would that be a bad thing?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  16. OzarkHillbilly says:

    The Afghan Surge Was A Failure

    Duhhh.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  17. MBunge says:

    Another factor to consider is that staying in Afghanistan is what has enabled the U.S. to wage what by all accounts is a militarily successful drone war against terrorists in Pakistan. I would guess it was also rather helpful when it came to planning the raid to get Osama.

    Mike

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  18. Ron Beasley says:

    I was in favor of going in and getting all of the AQ we could but Bush/Cheney had eyes on Iraq and botched that. The nation building thing was never going to happen and we should have just left. If we are not in the area and they don’t have us to fight they will fight each other something that applies to the entire Middle East. One wise thing Pat Buchanan said was “They don’t hate us because of who we are the hate us because of where we are.” 911 happened because we had troops is Saudi Arabia.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  19. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @JKB: is a failure.

    Duuuhhh.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  20. steve says:

    Yup, I was wrong in supporting the Afghan surge. I should have listened more to the Iraq surge critics like Gian Gentile. Factors within iraq had more to do with the decrease in violence than the surge. It helped to cement those gains, but was probably not primary.

    With some reservations, I trusted the advice of those who thought the Afghan people were still open to a surge like effort in Afghanistan. My gut feeling was that we had probably been there too long to try to start over. I was convinced by the COIN crowd that it had a good chance. We were wrong. Time to get out. We need to figure out what we want to do when we leave.

    Steve

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  21. michael reynolds says:

    I thought the Afghan surge (like its Iraq counterpart) was about staving off another Saigon. Push back, stall, gain a breather and arrange a dignified exit: stage right.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  22. stonetools says:

    The issue sort of depends on what your expectations were. If your expectations were that we were going to plant a stable, European style government in Afghanistan in two years, then yes it was a failure. But then , no sensible person would have defined the goal of the surge that way.
    The point of the surge was to buy time for the Afghan government to at least move toward being a good and stable government without the Taliban breathing down their necks. That may have worked if the Afghan governm,ent had shown itself to be serious about reform. As it happened, it wasn’t serious about reform but that was not obvious in 2008-or at least not as obvious as it was now.
    I think it was arguably worth a shot to give the Karzai government time to get its act together, and so I was OK with Obama trying the surge. I’m also OK with him realizing that the Karzai government is just not the kind of partner we need in Afghanistan, and deciding to set a withdrawal date. Sometimes-indeed , most times-these gambles don’t work out.

    What I do know is that if Obama had campaigned on an immediate pullout of Afghanistan in 2008, the Republicans would have lambasted him for “surrendering too soon” . We would have heard ” There is no substitute for victory”, that Obama “gave up Afghanistan” and that the Democrats were the mommy party who couldn’t be trusted to “defend America”. That being the case, I understand why Obama might have taken the approach that the Afghan War may have been the one wirth fighting.
    Finally, had we pulled out in 2008, we would not have had the base from which to launch the raid that killed bin Laden. That’s one reason to be glad that we didn’t immediately leave Aghhanistan.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  23. @steve:

    You know who was right about the Afghan Surge? Joe Biden, he was one of the people in Obama’s inner circle who was advocating a counter-terrorism strategy in Af/Pak rather than counter-insurgency.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  24. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @MBunge:

    to wage what by all accounts is a militarily successful drone war against terrorists in Pakistan.

    Mike, I am not sure just exactly how successful the “drone war” is. I mean, it seems like for every terrorist we kill, we create 3 or 4 more(or at least 3 or 4 more who want to see dead Americans).

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  25. PD Shaw says:

    @michael reynolds: I too recall that the surge was being proposed because conditions were deteriorating rapidly. In the sense that the worst case scenarios did not occur, it wasn’t a compete failure.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  26. grumpy realist says:

    I think the Afghan mess has always been (aside from that period in the beginning where we really did think that Karzai et. al. could run the country) nothing more than looking for an opportunity to declare victory and leave.

    And yes, if Obama had decided to pull out when it was becoming obvious that Karzai et al couldn’t care less about getting a working government together and were only interested in the opportunities for corruption, the Republicans and pundits would have screamed their heads off and accused him of being a weak failure-monger. Obama had to wait until the situation got sufficiently tiresome that the rest of the country *would* support a withdrawal, no matter how loud the neocons screamed.

    It’s mucky, it’s nasty, it’s inhumane, but it’s what we have to do, considering how unrealistic our war-mongers are.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  27. george says:

    @anjin-san:

    You might want to check the track records of would be conquerors in Afghanistan. No one has has a lot of luck since Alexander the Great, and that includes some of the greatest military powers the world has ever known. I think there is a little more going on here than “Obama told them when we were leaving”…

    That was my thought as well. Its never been a place much given to giving in to conqueors – and that includes during days when conqueors were quite happy to kill anyone who opposed them.

    A number of people pointed out this still applies in modern times, just from watching the fun the Soviets had in there. Not a lot of fear in there.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  28. Midwestern Dad says:

    We should declare victory and get out. As pointed out- Alexander the Great has trouble there. The British conquered Afghanistan and then lost their army by attrition over the winter. They pulled back to what was then northern India. The russians failed. I was not critical at the time of the policy. I gave “the experts” the benefit of the doubt. There weren’t a lot of viable alternatives. Its sad because of the number of deaths and injuries. It informs the recent discussions about stopping the Iranian nuclear threat. Sometimes when up are up to your ass with crocidiles- its hard to remember why you wanted to drain the swamp. We should leave them to their own devises as long as they are not a breeding and training ground for terrorists.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  29. Tsar Nicholas says:

    Well, Afghanistan is a tough nut to crack. As the British and the Soviets learned the hard way. But if recent history is any indication (the mass slaughter in South Vietnam after we left Saigon; the past year or so in Iraq) up and leaving is not exactly a great option.

    Speaking of tough nuts to crack, you know how the British prevailed in the 2nd Boer war, don’t you? They took the gloves off. No more Mr. Nice Guys. They slaughtered the Boers. They adopted a policy of total war in Boer areas. They killed livestock. They burned farms. They razed entire villages. Women and children were interred in concentration camps. Kitchener dispensed with the stiff up lip thing and the whole honorable professional soldier mantra and instead strapped on the brass knuckles. The Boers wanted an alley fight? Kitchener turned it into a sewer fight. And he won. A complete victory.

    Lastly, how can we speak of Afghanistan without addressing the elephant in the room? What exactly were McChrystal’s plans and why did he get so fed up with the administration that he in essence fired himself via media interview?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  30. wr says:

    @steve: “Yup, I was wrong in supporting the Afghan surge.”

    Steve, I don’t know who or where you are, but you deserve lifetime honor and glory for being the first person ever to admit he was wrong on the internet!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  31. wr says:

    @Tsar Nicholas: What’s your point? That genocide is a good thing?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  32. Mike says:

    Regarding the drone attacks being successful, remember that there are different levels of war…the drones are highly successful tactically and relatively successful operationally, but strategically their record is…well, I’ll just be charitable and say “mixed.”

    Incidentally enough that has been the U.S. way of war for at least the past 20 or so years…great tactically, pretty solid operationally, but somewhere between terrible and abysmal strategically.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  33. Dave says:

    @Tsar Nicholas:

    And they also used concentration camps! Let’s see, who else did that … thinking … thinking …

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  34. Lynda says:

    First time I ever heard about Afghanistan was through Rudyard Kipling’s poem
    http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/the-young-british-soldier/

    When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains,
    And the women come out to cut up what remains,
    Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
    An’ go to your Gawd like a soldier.

    The “Graveyard of Empires” did not get that reputation by accident.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  35. Clanton says:

    Comparable to the Vietnam buildup. There is no plan to win, and evidently no exit plan. We should not get into any war without a plan to win. Here is the only way to win: “No terms except unconditional surrender” General Grant, Army of the Potomac

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  36. Just nutha' ig'rant cracker says:

    @Rafer Janders: Didn’t you know? Top secret documents to the JBKistan Intelligence Agency have established that the Afghan opposition have no ability to read and no access to foreign press or the Internet. Keeping them in the dark would have been child’s plaa.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  37. Just nutha' ig'rant cracker says:

    @Midwestern Dad: There was always a viable alternatie–don’t nation build.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  38. Just nutha' ig'rant cracker says:

    @Tsar Nicholas: @wr: Or that killing every man, woman, and child in Afghanistan is even possible?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  39. @Tsar Nicholas: I guess we should start concentration camps and starve Afghans to death? Have you seen pictures of the Boer concentration camps? They look like something from Nazi Germany:

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  40. bill says:

    let’s see, these attacks have risen since 2008, and someone else is in office since then. is there a pattern emerging? LOL, all’s well of course. we get to leave with our tails behind our legs.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  41. JohnMcC says:

    As boxing fans know, ‘style makes the fight’. The idea of a lengthy war of attrition that would grind down the Taliban was absurd. For one thing, supplies brought in by ground have to be trucked over the Khyber Pass. Anyone can look it up and evaluate the quality of that judgement. We have been flying Petroleum-Oil-and-Lubricants (as it was called when I was in the service–POL) from Khazakhstan making each gallon of fuel in a HumVee cost $400.00 + (according to CBS News on 12/6/11). Amateurs think about strategy; professional think about logistics.

    As our host says above, Mr Biden’s idea has shown itself far better than the policy we actually adopted.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  42. Barry says:

    @Doug Mataconis: “Indeed. We never should have tied our interests to the political future of Afghanistan. There was a brief time in the 1960s, when it was under a basically Constitutional Monarchy, that the nation was among the most modern in the Muslim world but it’s gone far down hill since then and it is basically ungovernable at this point. ”

    Agreed. The situation which Obama faced was a nation-building exercise which had failed already, assuming that it was possible (which I don’t).

    His solution was to hand the hawks more resources, and to tell them to produce results.
    They haven’t, of course, and now it can be wound down.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  43. Barry says:

    @michael reynolds: And it’s not like they’re used to outsiders coming in and trying to conquer them.

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