The jockeying for position on troop withdrawals from Afghanistan and Iraq continues. Recently, departing Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and the U.S. military have tried to box the Obama administration into leaving as many troops in Afghanistan as possible. Gates argued that a rapid withdrawal would threaten the gains accrued from the surge of 30,000 troops. Gates opined, “I would try to maximize my combat capability as long as this process goes on—I think that’s a no-brainer.” He has argued for a modest withdrawal, which other sources have pegged at between 3,000 and 5,000 troops; in other words, only a token pullout to fulfill President Obama’s pledge to begin withdrawing troops this summer.
Pushing back are Vice President Joe Biden and the White House staff, including National Security Adviser Tom Donilon. Biden and Donilon were initially skeptical of the troop surge and are pushing for a more rapid withdrawal. Biden backs a speedier pullout but wants to keep a smaller force to perform counterterrorism missions and train the Afghan military.
It is true that U.S. “gains” from the surge in Helmand and Kandahar provinces in southern Afghanistan are likely to be ephemeral unless American forces remain. In guerrilla wars, the foreign occupier’s superior technology and firepower can usually clear areas of less well-equipped insurgents. The problem is holding the territory after the foreign occupier’s forces have moved on. That would normally be done by Afghan forces, which are expanding but have 30 percent desertion per year, have only a 10 percent literacy rate among recruits, and are thoroughly corrupt (like the rest of the U.S.-backed client Afghan government). Lt. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV, in charge of training Afghan troops, however, prefers to look on the bright side; he argues that Afghan forces are improving because they must now be certified to be competent in using their weapons before joining the force, which wasn’t a requirement before. Surely, American troops that have to go into battle with these ragtag Afghans are ecstatic about this development.
More important, the Taliban has just moved to other parts of Afghanistan and is now attacking in the east, north, and west of Afghanistan. Since the U.S. has too few troops to conduct a counterinsurgency strategy in all parts of the country and the Afghan forces are too incompetent to fill the gaps, the wishful gains that the U.S. military sees in Afghanistan are largely illusory, as yet another prime fighting season begins. In the early 1980s, the U.S. encouraged a similar nationwide counterinsurgency strategy by the Salvadoran military, which also had too few troops to police the entire nation. The strategy failed because the insurgents just moved to areas that had fewer government troops. Baseball great Yogi Berra would say that Afghanistan is “déjà vu all over again.”
Gates maintains that the counterinsurgency strategy (nation-building) increases the intelligence for counterterrorism missions because the Afghan population feels more secure to provide information to Americans. That may be true, but even U.S. intelligence admits that there are very few al-Qaeda fighters left in Afghanistan and that even Yemen has a more dangerous al-Qaeda presence than Afghanistan. More important, the U.S. would have a far smaller problem with Islamist terrorism if it would quit attacking or occupying Muslim countries, which is what really spins up Islamists and causes them to become terrorists. Thus, the Obama administration should not wait until the end of 2014 to withdraw all forces from Afghanistan—as agreed upon by NATO and the Afghan government—and should consider a more radical option of rapidly withdrawing all forces from Afghanistan, including those for counterterrorism missions.
Similarly, in Iraq, pending Iraqi government concurrence, the U.S. has offered to retain some forces past the deadline for total withdrawal—the end of this year—to help hold that fractured country together. Recent mass demonstrations against any American forces remaining past the deadline and potent attacks on the U.S. military by Shi’ite militias, including that of anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, should disabuse the Obama administration of that idea.
Afghanistan and Iraq may very well descend into more severe internecine conflict after the complete withdrawal of U.S. forces, but America can no longer afford the blood and treasure required to fight pointless wars in perpetuity.