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.