All the signs are that Staff Sgt. Robert Bales’ alleged shooting spree is hastening the US pullout from Afghanistan. This is tragic, because what’s at stake isn’t just whether that country becomes the tortured hostage of the Taliban again, and the safe haven of their Al Qaeda allies. It’s also the future fate of America’s most successful military strategy in decades — otherwise known as counterinsurgency.
Thanks to that strategy, the military situation in Afghanistan has undergone a remarkable reversal.
Back in mid-2009, the Taliban and their allies had overrun key provinces in the south and east of Afghanistan, as they tightened the noose around an increasingly isolated Kabul. Then, with President Obama’s reluctant approval, 30,000 additional soldiers and Marines arrived from Iraq, and brought the counterinsurgency strategy Gen. David Petraeus had used with stunning success in that country, to the mountains of Afghanistan.
To the amazement of opponents and skeptics (including Vice President Joe Biden), the surge worked. Last year Marines cleared out the last remaining Taliban strongholds in Kandahar and Helmand, turning the latter province over to the new 325,000-strong Afghan National Army. They and their US Army comrades were poised to do the same thing in eastern Afghanistan, starting this spring.
Counterinsurgency isn’t a new strategy. Its roots go back to the Indian wars on the American frontier. Contrary to media myth, it isn’t about winning a popularity contest, or even hearts and minds.
From the surge of “boots on the ground” to the endless patrols and tedious tea-drinking sessions to the handing out of food and medicine to the Predator strikes on the bad guys, it’s all about convincing the indigenous population that you aren’t going anywhere until the insurgents are beaten.
At the end of the day, goes the message, the enemy will be gone and we and our Afghan allies still be here to help — and everyone had better adjust their calculations accordingly, including President Hamid Karzai.
But since mid-2011, President Obama has seemed determined to undermine our success. First he announced he would be bringing home all the surge forces by this summer. Then in September he abruptly pulled Petraeus from overall command in Afghanistan, sending him off to run the CIA. Since then, Obama has refused funding to maintain the Afghan National Army at its current strength, on which the future success of the counterinsurgency depends.
Now reports are that, with the presidential campaign heating up, the president plans to announce the end of all combat operations in Afghanistan by 2013, a year ahead of time — a year our troops were supposed to use to consolidate their gains in order to be ready to head home for the 2014 deadline.
Obama’s hasty and arbitrary timetables, his insistence on shutting down combat operations ahead of time, his silence when allies like the French speed up their own withdrawal plans: It all adds up to a clear message to Afghans that we longer care who wins. It has undercut the brave effort and sacrifice of our troops. It also encourages the Taliban to hold on, because they’ll soon be back in charge.
That’s not just bad news for Afghans. It took the death and injury of thousands of our troops in Iraq, and tens of thousands of Iraqis, until a US Army that had once sworn, “No more Vietnams,” painfully relearned the counterinsurgency lessons forgotten after that conflict.
How many will have to die in future wars, if they are forgotten again?
Cross-posted from the New York Post.