Was Obama’s ‘Afghan Surge’ A Failure?

To much fanfare, President Obama announced a shift in Afghan War policy in December 2009. There's little evidence it's worked.

Barely a year into his Presidency, President Obama announced a new plan for the American war effort in Afghanistan. Throughout his candidacy the year before, of course, then Senator Obama had been making the argument that the Bush Administration had lost focus on the war in Afghanistan, which he characterized as the “good war” without actually using the phrase, by the war in Iraq. So, it was only natural that among his first orders to the military upon taking office involved putting together a new plan for Afghanistan itself, including the possibility of sending more American troops to the region in a move reminiscent of President Bush’s controversial “surge” in Iraq in 2007.  In December 2009, the President announced a plan to send an additional 30,000 troops to the theater, where the would be commanded by General Stanley McChrystal, who had largely been the architect of the strategy that the President ended up adopting.  From the beginning, the President made clear that this was not going to be an open ended commitment, with the plan containing a timetable that called for these additional troops to begin coming home in 18 months, or roughly mid-2011. Writing about the President’s speech at the time, James Joyner noted that it seemed to indicate that the President didn’t believe the crisis was as urgent as the speech claimed:

[H]aving a firm calendar-based timetable — especially a public one — signals that the president does not believe achieving the mission at hand is really as urgent as he claims.  What if, come the middle of 2011, we have not defeated the Taliban?  What if a sober assessment of the Afghan government and security forces reveals that they are not yet ready to carry out the struggle as the lead actors?  Will we simply “advise and assist” and hope for the best?

The president doesn’t say.

Instead, the next twenty-five paragraphs of the speech are essentially a domestic policy address, the theme of which was “That’s why our troop commitment in Afghanistan cannot be open- ended: because the nation that I’m most interested in building is our own.”   That’s a welcome message to a domestic audience grown weary of war.  But it’s not one likely to inspire much confidence in Afghans being asked to bet their lives on our strategy.

As we’ve found out recently, of course, it seems like the Afghan people, along with members of the military and the police forces clearly seem to be demonstrating a lack of confidence in our strategy, to say the very least. At the same time, though, it’s not entirely clear that we actually have complied with that original December 2009 timetable that would’ve gotten the surge troops out of the country by the middle of last year. Now, the President and Afghan President Karzai have signed on to a new plan that will essentially have the majority of American troops out of the country by the end of 2014, with more and more responsibility for security and actions against the Taliban gradually being handed over to Afghan forces.

The real question, though, is whether President Obama’s surge has actually made much of a difference on the ground.  Over at Wired, Spencer Ackerman tackles that question, and finds little evidence that it did:

[A]fter two years of combat in Kandahar and Helmand, those provinces still account for an outsize proportion of Afghan insurgent violence.
Nor is violence is down significantly in Afghanistan as a whole. Allen, speaking to Pentagon reporters on Thursday, said the overall insurgent violence in the country has dipped three percent from this time last year — a figure he conceded “may not be statistically significant.” The previous year, ISAF said that insurgent attacks remained basically level with summer 2010 levels — when the full complement of surge troops arrived in Afghanistan. The purpose of the surge was to reverse the momentum of the Taliban in order to hand over a stable Afghanistan to the Afghan government. If measured by the rate of insurgent activity, the surge at most dented the Taliban’s momentum.

Indeed, Kandahar and Helmund have been the location where most of the “Green on Blue” attacks by members of the Afghan military and police forces have taken place in recently. Measuring the surge simply the the level of violence in those two areas, then, one would have to conclude that the operation has fallen far short of its goals to say the very least.

Starting later this year, American troops will begin their draw down, including in Helmund where the number of Marines will be reduced to just about 7,000 troops. At that point, the beginning of the end of the surge, and of the American presence in Afghanistan itself. It should have come a lot sooner, of course, but at least it will have been reached. Looking back on all of it now, it’s hard to see what we’ve accomplished, and even harder to see what President Obama’s decision to ramp up our commitment significantly over the past two and half years has accomplished.

FILED UNDER: Afghanistan War, Asia, Policing, US Politics, World Politics, , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held 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 contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Was Obama’s ‘Afghan Surge’ A Failure?

    Without even reading the post let me just answer the question:


  2. Nothing on the surface makes sense about Afghanistan, and our government is not very transparent on its related Pakistan policy. On the surface it looks like we should have pulled out the day after bagging Bin Laden.

    I have no idea what they’re up to.

  3. Tsar Nicholas says:

    Afghanistan is a tough nut to crack.

    That said, however, I think it’s pretty telling that McChrystal in essence fired himself by going all insubordinate and by bashing Obama in that interview he gave to Rolling Stone, of all sources. I mean, come on, let’s not be completely naive. Maybe things would be a lot different today if McChrystal had been given free rein? Unfortunately we’ll never know.

  4. Me Me Me says:

    Is OBL still dead?

  5. Mr. Prosser says:

    I haven’t heard any adequate definition of success relating to the war in Afghanistan itself. But, does the administration and the generals define “success” as the drone war over the border in Pakistan, the killing of OBL, the gradual grinding down of of al Qaeda leaders and, I’m worried about this, maintaining a strategic position on the eastern border of Iran?

  6. @Me Me Me:

    Which had nothing to do with the surge.

  7. Argon says:

    The outcome of the war was decided probably by 2004. Any operations designed to create a stable Afghanistan would be failures, short of pulling out long ago. Maybe some military presence could be justified to maintain easier access into Pakistan, but that’s about it?

  8. Me Me Me says:

    @Doug Mataconis: Denied a safe haven in Afghanistan AQ were made vulnerable to the drone war in the Pakistan, where they were easily tracked, where tracking their couriers gave up the location of OBL’s hideout, and where they have been decimated almost to the point of irrelevance. Those drones operate from Afghanistan, to maximize their time over Pakistan. Furthermore, the raid that killed OBL was necessarily staged and launched from Afghanistan. Militants who would love to attack these bases cannot do so because the surge has denied them freedom of movement.

  9. Jeremy R says:

    It should have come a lot sooner, of course, but at least it will have been reached. Looking back on all of it now, it’s hard to see what we’ve accomplished, and even harder to see what President Obama’s decision to ramp up our commitment significantly over the past two and half years has accomplished.

    Do you feel the GOP alternative would have been preferable? At the time President Obama announced his policy they were unified in condemning his going to the low end # of troops in the various options the generals proposed and they criticized his draw down time table. Later when that was accelerated they criticized it for being even faster than anything the generals proposed. The killing of OBL also made a big difference in making a more rapid withdrawal harder for the GOP to demagogue against as it radically shifted the public’s mood on getting out of the war.

  10. grumpy realist says:

    Hard to tell what would have happened. If any of the so-called surge was related in any way to the raid that got OBL, then it was a success.

    I think this is a lot of monday-morning quarterbacking after the event. War–especially this sort of insurgency stuff–is messy. About the only thing I can say is that none of this has seemed to have risen to the abysmal stupidity of WWI.

  11. bill says:

    i thought we weren’t supposed to bring up this war as it may embarrass our leader? i say he’s in the ‘lbj” phase now- but since the media has abandoned their coverage it’s not a big deal to him anymore.

  12. @bill:

    Dig a little deeper, bill. This war was started by another President, one who talked about “beacons of Democracy” and junk like that.

    Are you now putting it on Obama that he can’t bury Bush’s plan fast enough?

  13. @Jeremy R:

    When it comes to the Afghan War, both parties were offering failed ideas in 2008 so the choice between McCain and Obama on that issue was pretty much a wash.

  14. @Me Me Me:

    Again, that is completely separate from the surge. In fact, that’s exactly the kind of counter-terrorism strategy that critics were saying Obama should’ve adopted in Afghanistan in 2009, instead of the counter-insurgency strategy exemplified by the surge

  15. @Doug Mataconis:

    It is not “completely separate,” you are just telling us “look only here, not there.”

  16. Me Me Me says:

    Dittos to what john personna just wrote.

    Do you or don’t you agree that our air bases in Afghanistan have been essential to our success in killing that bastard OBL and decimating the rest of the AQ leadership?

    Would or would not those bases be an irresistible target for weekly/daily/hourly attacks if the Taliban/AQ had freedom of movement throughout the region?

  17. @Me Me Me:

    The bases were there before the surge. You know that, right?

    And those bases have been a target for attacks since the surge anyway. Afghanistan had become a mistake by the time Obama took office. His decision to double down on that mistake was the result of listening to bad advice.

  18. john personna says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    When you maintain “completely separate” you assert that Obama and the generals gave Bin Laden and Al Queda zero consideration in the surge. Preposterous.

  19. Me Me Me says:

    Like I said – our air bases are juicy targets, and have become more so over time as the drone war in Pakistan had success after success, topped off by the successful OBL raid.

    But the Taliban can’t do anything about it except the occasional suicide raid that doesn’t even impede operations by a day.

    Why? Because they can’t move freely and they can’t mass in numbers.

    Planning to up the drone war in Pakistan without doing something on the ground to secure the bases in Afghanistan would have been weak decision making of Rumsfeldian proportions.

  20. bill says:

    @john personna: well, when 2 of our “beacons of democracy” were destroyed things changed a bit! and lbj didn’t start ‘nam either- it’s an analogy.
    obama knew what he was getting into, if he can’t fix things then he needs to be retired.

  21. stonetools says:

    There’s a reason why they call Afghanistan the “graveyard of empires” . At least we’re doing better than the British did in the First Afghan War.

    Obama campaigned on the belief that Afghanistan was the ” good war” . His surge was an implementation of this. As far as the surge is concerned, I think of it as a promise kept. Its not much more than that.
    What I’m sorry for is the dead-both American and Afghan.

  22. Dazedandconfused says:

    Was a bad idea, but one he promised to do in the election.

    Should have listened to crazy ol’ Joe on that one, and ignored Hillary and General Dave. It was nice to see Major Flynn get the DIA job though. He gave a report that contradicted General Dave and McChystal, and that was a brave thing to do.

  23. stonetools says:

    Do you feel the GOP alternative would have been preferable?

    Had Obama campaigned in 2008 on a platform calling for withdrawal from Afghanistan, is there ANY doubt that the Republicans would have excoriated him as being another weak-on-defense, bleeding-heart, defeatist, pinko liberal? We would have been told that ” There is no substitute for victory”, “Americans don’t surrender”, etc. At least now its absolutely clear, as it wasn’t in 2008, that Afghanistan is un-winnable.
    Was Doug calling for withdrawal in 2008?

  24. Rob in CT says:

    To answer the question posed: I’d say yes overall. In terms of domestic political considerations, I’d say it was a success (it basically defanged the standard GOP “Dems are weak on national security” attack, especially after the OBL raid). It’s sad, but I don’t see any alternative history that involves an earlier withdrawl, for entirely political reasons.

  25. The best thing about electing Romney would be that we can just retroactively withdraw in 2007.

  26. Barry says:

    @Tsar Nicholas: “Maybe things would be a lot different today if McChrystal had been given free rein? Unfortunately we’ll never know. ”

    The Soviets undoubtedly had far freer range, and failed miserably.

  27. Barry says:

    @Doug Mataconis: “When it comes to the Afghan War, both parties were offering failed ideas in 2008 so the choice between McCain and Obama on that issue was pretty much a wash.”

    Ridiculous. McCain had demonstrated that he was anxious to start more wars, and in general make Bush look good.

  28. Barry says:

    I would say that the ‘surge’ was a ‘success’. There was no chance of any surge actually working, unless the US people were willing to pack several hundred thousand troops in Afghanistan for five to ten years, take 10K KIA, and, ah, ‘demographically readjust’ parts of Afghanistan as needed.

    The war was lost in Spring 2002, when the redeployment of SF for Iraq begain. At that point, AQ/Taliban/an uncomfortably large portion of Afghan men had the time to start up a guerrilla war, and very likely a lot of Afghans were reminded of the old saying ‘they’ll be gone but we live here’, and decided not to join the side who’d be out in a decade.

  29. bill says:

    @Barry: we helped them fail, and then paid for it years later.