Afghanistan: what 'victory' looks like

Where is Afghanistan policy headed at this crucial moment? As the nation's excellent if unsung war commander, Gen. John Allen, testifies on Capitol Hill this week, and as Republican presidential aspirants continue to attack President Barack Obama from both the left and the right on the subject, these questions are especially timely. Will the president soon be tempted to say that with Osama bin Laden dead (on the positive side), but with the Afghan and Pakistani governments still very hard to work with and the insurgency still resilient (on the negative side), it's simply time to declare victory, cut our losses and get the forces home fast?

Monday, for the first time, I heard a clear answer on this subject from a senior administration official. He stated emphatically that the current U.S. troop drawdown from 100,000 to 68,000 troops by September will be the extent of the cuts for a while. They will be completed, according to a plan still being finalized by General Allen, and the situation then assessed further this fall, before any additional reductions are planned. U.S. and other NATO troops will still complete their main mission by 2014, but there will be no rush for the exits in the meantime.


As Martin Indyk, Ken Lieberthal and I explain in our new book, "Bending History: Barack Obama's Foreign Policy," that approach should come as no surprise for this president. In office, Mr. Obama has become a reluctant realist — less focused on the grand visions and hopes of his campaign, more on the immediate foreign policy chores of keeping America safe. And on Afghanistan specifically, no metamorphosis was needed. From the beginning of his presidential campaign, Barack Obama had made it clear that he viewed the Afghanistan conflict as the correct war to pursue in the aftermath of Sept. 11. He pledged to swing focus from Iraq to Afghanistan and often spoke of adding at least two brigades of U.S. combat forces to the latter mission, as the Taliban regained strength during the second term of the Bush presidency.

Many onlookers suspected that this was partly politics at the time — a liberal first-term senator running against Sen. John McCain needed to show his toughness and readiness for the commander-in-chief job in some way. But this theory has been debunked by Mr. Obama's actual performance as president. Far more than deploying two more brigades to Afghanistan, on top of the four or so already there when he stepped into the White House, he in fact added eight. The United States had 30,000 troops in Afghanistan when Mr. Obama was inaugurated; it had 100,000 there by late 2010. Not only did Mr. Obama quickly turn to an Afghanistan policy review upon taking office, increasing that 30,000 figure to about 68,000 as a result, but he agreed to a second major review in the fall of 2009 — and then doubled down his bets with another troop increase a second time.


Much of the purpose of the new forces Mr. Obama sent has been to establish substantial NATO troop concentrations in the key centers of the Afghan population, especially the Pashtun plurality in the south and east. Large numbers of added forces were sent to Helmand Province and Kandahar Province, the latter the spiritual home and base of the Taliban, the former a major source of additional support as well as wealth from the opium trade. These areas are now much improved, as reflected in a few key facts and figures. Violence is down by one third to one half in the south and east. In Helmand, 50 percent more children are now in school than in 2009, nearly half the population considers the roads secure in contrast to a third who felt that way a year before, and government officials now travel locally by road rather than NATO helicopter. The campaign plan calls for extending similar efforts to the country's east this year and next, while completing the creation of a 350,000-strong Afghan army and police force. Afghan forces now cooperate with NATO troops on 90 percent of all operations and take the lead themselves on 40 percent.

There have been mistakes along the way, to be sure. President Obama's team has had internal schisms that sometimes went public. That was true even before Wikileaks, as a cable written by U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry that cast doubts on President Hamid Karzai's dependability was leaked by someone in the administration. More broadly, the Obama administration has not maintained a consistent or constructive approach in dealing with Mr. Karzai. Several administration officials either excoriated the Afghan leader in public or wound up in heated exchanges with him in private that damaged the broader relationship. Looking back on the history, former Secretary of Defense Robert F. Gates declared that the United States had done a "lousy job" listening to the Afghan leader — even if the problem was clearly not all American-made.

Mr. Obama has also sometimes failed to project resolve, despite his strong decision-making on the war. His policies have been firmer than his words. In announcing his decision to increase troops a second time at West Point on Dec. 1, 2009, Mr. Obama also pledged to begin removing U.S. forces from Afghanistan by July 2011. By itself, a plan to make any additional foreign military buildup in Afghanistan temporary should not have raised too many eyebrows; after all, President George W. Bush did much the same thing with the surge in Iraq. But Mr. Obama seemed to be promising a fairly rapid end to the war overall — and that seemed to be the message he wanted Congress and the American people, especially the anti-war base of his own party, to hear. Well aware of the nation's war fatigue, well aware of the analogies drawn between his war effort in Afghanistan and Lyndon Johnson's in Vietnam, Mr. Obama tried to have it all: being muscular enough to create a chance to succeed while hedging his bets and trying to keep the country's political left supportive at the same time. He took a similar approach last June, in announcing a faster initial troop drawdown than Gen. David Petraeus had favored. This somewhat mixed effort, even if useful for handling domestic criticism of the war at home, has probably contributed unhelpfully to hedging behavior among many Afghans and Pakistanis.

Where does this leave us? A convincing victory seems unlikely. What is still attainable is a mediocre but still acceptable outcome — if Mr. Obama stays patient, as it appears he will. The future of Afghanistan may resemble what has been witnessed in places like Pakistan or Colombia, with an ongoing insurgency and certain areas largely beyond the control of the government for an extended period. But at least it will no longer be in Taliban hands or in an anarchic Somalia-like state; the areas where al-Qaeda could seek to take sanctuary would be more limited and more vulnerable to government or NATO strikes. That would not be risk-free but would be far preferable to outright defeat. It would not lead to any big victory parades as troops come home, perhaps. But it would, on balance, keep America safe — and still square with this president's generally practical and disciplined, if no longer quite so inspirational or visionary, approach to U.S. national security policy.

Michael O'Hanlon, foreign policy senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, is coauthor with Martin Indyk and Kenneth Lieberthal of the new book, "Bending History: Barack Obama's Foreign Policy." His email is