Obama’s unanswered question on Afghanistan

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.