Obama’s unanswered question on Afghanistan

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During his recent speech in Kabul, President Obama sought to close the door on Afghanistan as an election-year issue. He congratulated the troops, hailed the progress that’s been made due to his leadership, and reiterated his promise to withdraw most troops by 2014. As the president got on Air Force One, the message was clear: You won’t be hearing much else from me on Afghanistan (except, perhaps, to tout the death of Osama bin Laden).

But unfortunately for President Obama and our country, the issue is not that simple. If conditions deteriorate when U.S. troops begin withdrawing this summer, President Obama might be forced to make a difficult decision: continue with the withdrawal (and risk the collapse of Afghanistan) or send in more troops.

According to Gallup, U.S. support for the war is at an all-time low. So at first glance, President Obama’s promise to withdraw U.S. troops by 2014 seems to be a foolproof position. But the only thing more unpopular than continuing the war might be allowing Afghanistan to descend into chaos and risk the return of the Taliban (and possibly al Qaida).

According to Republican Congressman Mike Rogers and Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein, the Taliban are rapidly gaining strength and are poised to regain territory once U.S. surge troops withdraw this summer. General John Allen recently told The Washington Post that he plans to transition many of the tribal areas to Afghan control “regardless of whether Afghan soldiers are capable of holding their own.” And by the U.S.’s own estimates, it appears they are not. According to The Post, only 18 of Afghanistan’s 293 battalions are able to function independently.

President Obama’s strategy for Afghanistan appears to be withdrawal regardless of conditions on the ground. This strategy hinges on three hopes: the progress made during the surge will hold; Hamid Karzai’s government will survive; and the Taliban will renounce violence and agree to a negotiated peace.

It’s unlikely that all, or any, of these hopes will come to fruition.

Deputy NATO Commander Adrian Bradshaw, responding to Rogers and Feinstein’s comments about the Taliban’s resurgence, said that the surge of U.S. forces had reversed the Taliban’s momentum. But as we saw in Iraq, the security gains produced by a counterinsurgency strategy are often unsustainable unless there is simultaneous political progress and a buy-in from the local population.

Unfortunately, it appears that the Afghan people have not been heavily invested in the effort to eradicate the Taliban. The citizen movements we saw in Iraq, such as the Anbar Awakening, never materialized in Afghanistan. Furthermore, many Afghans, including General Rashid Dostum, believe the Taliban will return once we leave. The reason is simple: The Taliban retreated into Pakistan and the Afghan mountainside at the beginning of the surge, and were not doggedly pursued by NATO or Afghan forces. Since Afghans fear the Taliban will return, they have not cooperated fully with U.S. and NATO troops during the surge. Sadly, this makes the Taliban’s return even more likely.

And unlike Iraq, where the U.S. helped stand up a competent security force, the Afghan security forces seem unprepared to take control of the country, given that only five percent of battalions can operate without NATO assistance. General Allen says he is proceeding with the transition because he wants Afghans to take the lead while U.S. forces are still present to assist them. But that only gives the Afghans two years to learn to operate without U.S. assistance. Considering it has taken 10 years to bring five percent of battalions up to speed, it’s hard to be optimistic.

Finally, there is even less political progress in Afghanistan today than there was during a comparable period in Iraq. Karzai’s government has tenuous control over Kabul, but not much else, and corruption is endemic and systematic.

Therefore, it appears the main hope for preventing the Taliban from violently returning to power is a negotiated truce (in which the Taliban will renounce violence, agree not to harbor al Qaida or other terrorists, and agree not to overthrow Karzai’s regime).

But the Taliban are negotiating from a position of strength (and the knowledge that almost all NATO troops will be gone in two years), so it’s unclear they’d agree to such a deal. And given the Taliban’s continued use of violence and terror against the Afghan military and civilian population, it’s unclear that a majority of the Taliban even wants such an agreement.

Thus, it is quite possible that the Taliban could regain territory when U.S. surge forces withdraw this summer. If that happens, President Obama may be forced to order in more troops or risk Afghanistan collapsing and becoming a safe haven for al Qaida. And even if Obama can delay making a decision until after the election, he still must explain what he will do if the security situation collapses as U.S. forces withdraw in 2013 and 2014.

Obama would be loath to order in more troops, given the war’s unpopularity and how important the issue is to his political base. Furthermore, if the surge proves to be a failure, it’s not clear that anything short of a permanent surge-level U.S. presence could stabilize Afghanistan. And this is something most Americans would surely object to.

But allowing Afghanistan to collapse is also an unthinkable option. According to a recent New York Times poll, most young voters said preventing the spread of terrorism was more important than withdrawing from Afghanistan. And if the Taliban takes control of large swaths of Afghanistan, it’s unlikely that the small U.S. counterinsurgency force Obama plans to leave behind will be able to effectively fight al Qaida and other terrorist groups.

Ultimately, the American people would be forced to decide if preventing the spread of terrorism in Afghanistan is truly worth the enormous cost in lives and money that would be required to keep more U.S. troops there. After 10 long years of war, Americans don’t want to see the effort to stabilize Afghanistan come to nothing. But they’re also skeptical we can achieve our objectives.

As commander in chief, President Obama needs to engage the country in a serious discussion of the issue. And he needs to explain what he would do if faced with a choice between these two unappealing options. The American people should demand no less.

David Meyers served in the White House from 2006 to 2009, and later in the United States Senate. He is currently pursuing graduate studies at Columbia University. His personal website is DavidRossMeyers.com.

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