Stop me if you’ve read this before: according to this New York Times article, American-led coalition forces have routed Taliban fighters in the key Afghan province of Kandahar in recent weeks. Taliban supply lines have been cut, their leadership decimated, and Taliban fighters have retreated back in Pakistan. The results seem to indicate that the troop “surge” approved by President Obama and implemented under David Petraeus, aided by the use of more sophisticated weaponry and better intelligence, is finally beginning to pay dividends. To be sure, arm-chair strategists like Tom Ricks and Fred Kaplan disagree regarding just why the surge seems finally to be working. Kaplan suggests that the U.S. has shifted from a counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy designed to shore up Afghan forces while clearing and holding civilian areas to a counter-terrorist approach focused primarily on killing the Taliban. He hints that the shift is partly a reaction to the impending July 2011 deadline to begin withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan; Petraeus realizes he cannot achieve stability in Afghanistan under the current timetable using the COIN approach, and so has decided to take the gloves off. Ricks (or at least some writing at his blogsite) think the more aggressive military tactics are simply one part of the COIN strategy pioneered by Petraeus in Iraq, and that nothing has really changed.
I will let the armchair strategists debate the finer points of military tactics. However, before declaring “mission accomplished” in Kandahar we would do well to remember recent history in Iraq. Despite the success of the Petraeus-led troop surge there, that nation remains on the brink of civil war. The Iraqis have been struggling for months to form a government, amid signs that there may be a renewal of the Sunni insurgency that crippled the U.S.-led occupation early in the war. The latest batch of documents just released by Wikileaks reveal just how deeply Iran is involved in trying to destabilize the nation-building process in Iraq. All indications are that those opposed to a power-sharing arrangement in Iraq are simply waiting for a complete U.S. withdrawal to renew the offensive. (Despite the much ballyhooed withdrawal of all combat forces from Iraq, the U.S. still has a substantial military presence there.)
All this is a reminder that the outcome of the November 2 midterm election potentially has important consequences for the war in Afghanistan and for our foreign policy more generally, but that you wouldn’t know it by listening to the candidates running for office, or by the media coverage. The dominant issue driving voter anger is unemployment and the still weak economy, and that has been the focus of media coverage (that and the horse race aspect of the campaigns) despite the fact that the United States is deeply involved in an escalating military conflict in Afghanistan. Right now, Obama has vowed to begin withdrawing U.S. forces beginning next July. I do not know whether Obama’s self-imposed deadline to begin the troop drawdown has contributed to Petraeus’ shift in tactics from counter insurgency to a more militarized counterterrorist approach (if in fact there has been a shift in tactics.) But voters would do well to reflect on what might happen if Republicans do regain the majority in the House and the Senate. My guess is that there would be renewed pressure on Obama to slow the pace of troop withdrawals in order to give Petraeus more time to apply the COIN strategy. I have no doubt that, facing a Republican majority, Petraeus would work behind the scenes to slow the Obama timetable for withdrawal.
Given the significance of a possible change in party control for the direction of U.S. foreign policy, why haven’t we heard more debate about Afghanistan? I think it’s because neither party sees this as a winning issue. Conservatives have never been happy with Obama’s choice to impose a withdrawal deadline, and liberals were aghast at his decision to escalate militarily by adding 30,000 soldiers to the conflict. The American public seems divided on the issue – they support efforts to combat terrorism, but aren’t sure Afghanistan is the place to make a stand. Given the public ambivalence, and Obama’s mixed approach, both parties want the issue to go away, at least until after Nov. 2.
In the end, the U.S. ability to “win” the war in Afghanistan, as in Iraq, depends not on military success alone, but on the messy process of statebuilding – something that requires non-military resources and, most importantly, patience – patience that the American people may not have.
Meanwhile, the troops fight on – but to what end? The dilemma facing the 112th Congress that will take power come January will be: do we stay or do we go? At this point, it doesn’t look like the midterm outcome will signal an unambiguous answer.