By Andrew J. Polsky
Three recent developments in Afghanistan underscore the difficulty that will confront the next American president, whether he is Barack Obama or Mitt Romney. First, as Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced, the last of the 33,000 additional troops sent to Afghanistan by President Obama two years ago to quell the revived Taliban insurgency have now returned home. The total US force of 68,000 is about the same as in 2009, as is the 100,000 figure for NATO troops overall. Second, despite the obligatory claims that the surge accomplished its purpose of degrading the Taliban, insurgents remain capable of launching spectacular attacks nearly anywhere in Afghanistan. On 14 September 2012, fifteen militants penetrated Camp Bastion in Helmand Province, killed two US Marines, and inflicted more than $200 million in damage. Third, after repeated attacks by Afghanistan government soldiers and police on American and other NATO troops, commanders of the outside forces have suspended most joint operations. More than fifty NATO soldiers have died this year alone in so-called green-on-blue incidents.
Of the three, the last is the most troubling because it undercuts the rationale for a continuing large-scale external presence in support of the Kabul regime. The NATO program has envisioned a transition to complete Afghan responsibility for security operations in 2014. President Obama has promised that the American combat mission would end at that point, though he has offered an ongoing security partnership with Kabul. I have argued that his approach, a reflection of the limited willingness of the American people to continue supporting the war, made sense. But if US forces can no longer operate safely in tandem with Afghan security personnel, then it becomes unclear what useful purpose is served by an ongoing large-scale NATO commitment.
Add to this the continuing toll in civilian deaths resulting from NATO military operations, a running sore in Afghan public opinion. Thus far in 2012, some 200 civilians have been killed by foreign troops, about half the number at this point in 2011, a decline that reflects tighter rules of engagement. Nevertheless, the losses have inflamed hostility toward the outside forces. Lest he be accused of being a puppet of the West, Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai has condemned a recent bombing attack that reportedly killed eight women in Laghman province.
Indeed, external military involvement may have reached the point of diminishing returns. Although President Karzai and other Afghan officials have tried to pass off the violent episodes between government soldiers and police and their NATO co-belligerents as the work of Taliban provocateurs, the evidence suggests that most of the attacks do not involve the Taliban. Instead they appear to stem from the vast cultural differences between the Afghan recruits and their Western “embedded team trainers” (ETTs). A dozen years into the war, moreover, the problem has been getting worse, not better. Given the trend, continuing the training mission seems most likely to exacerbate the problem. General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, has acknowledged that the insider attacks require a shift of some kind in the American approach.
But what options remain? No American leader of either party contemplates escalation. Although Mitt Romney has spoken of slowing the pace of withdrawal, no larger political purpose can be served by causing the deaths of a few more Taliban militants. The situation illustrates a broad pattern of wartime presidential leadership — the ongoing loss of agency that a commander in chief experiences as a conflict continues. At a certain point, a president ceases to exercise meaningful choices. All signs indicate that we have reached this point in Afghanistan.
Much as we might want the two candidates to address the future course of Afghanistan policy before Election Day, they are unlikely to do so. I expect the subject to be raised in the upcoming presidential debates, of course. But President Obama will do no more than defend his policy of gradual disengagement, while Mitt Romney may look to score some points by criticizing his rival for announcing a withdrawal timetable that let the Taliban wait out the American departure. As to what should come next, however, vague generalities will be the order of the day.
Come 20 January 2013, the question of what comes next in Afghanistan should no longer be evaded. If nothing else, it will be difficult to sidestep the ongoing costs of the war in a time of painful budget choices. The new president needs to make clear to the American people how a continuing large-scale US and NATO military presence in Afghanistan connects to a realistic and achievable political goal. Most of all, as commander in chief, he owes it to the troops scheduled for deployment in the next two years to explain why their sacrifices remain vital to American security and what mission he expects them to accomplish. If he can’t do that, then he should announce that they won’t be sent.
Andrew Polsky is Professor of Political Science at Hunter College and the CUNY Graduate Center. A former editor of the journal Polity, his most recent book is Elusive Victories: The American Presidency at War. Read Andrew Polsky’s previous blog posts.
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