Afghan President Hamid Karzai shakes hands with U.S. President Barak Obama at the conclusion of a joint news conference in the East Room of the White Hourse in Washington, January 11, 2013. (Reuters)

January 28, 2014

Obama Flirts with Losing the "Must Win" War

Originally published in The Wall Street Journal

The Soviet-installed government of Najibullah fell three years after the last Soviet soldier left Afghanistan—and mere months after the Soviets stopped supporting it financially. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki moved against his Sunni political opponents within 24 hours of the departure of the last American soldier, starting to set the conditions for the loss of all the gains purchased with much American and Iraqi blood. Yet Washington is full of leaks that the Obama administration is planning to end America's military presence in Afghanistan in 2016. And Congress has already slashed U.S. financial assistance to the fifth-poorest country in the world.

It seems we are about to repeat the mistakes of the past vainly hoping for a different outcome. We will be disappointed.

Candidate Barack Obama declared in 2008, "we will not repeat the mistake of the past, when we turned our back on Afghanistan following Soviet withdrawal. As 9/11 showed us, the security of Afghanistan and America is shared." He was right about the urgency. He was a poor prophet of his own future policy.

Our security remains tied to Afghanistan's. Al Qaeda leadership remains battered but defiant (and still operational) in Pakistan despite Osama bin Laden's death. The Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) are enormously larger and more competent than they were when Obama took office, but they are still unable to function independently against an insurgency that remains lethal and determined. Afghanistan remains unable to survive financially without massive infusions of international support. It is preparing for its first peaceful transition of power in many decades. It is impossible to argue for withdrawal on the grounds that Afghanistan no longer needs help.

Many Americans think Afghanistan no longer wants our help. President Hamid Karzai fuels that belief almost every time he speaks, ranting about American abuses, reviling the U.S., and refusing to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement that would give legal basis to continued U.S. presence. Who could possibly want to help a man like that or the country for which he pretends to speak?

But Mr. Karzai is not Afghanistan. On the contrary, the gathering of influential elders and leaders he convened in November to consider the Bilateral Security Agreement emphatically endorsed it and called on him to sign it quickly. Almost every major candidate running to succeed Mr. Karzai has supported signing the agreement. Advertisements are running on Afghan television stations calling on Mr. Karzai to sign.

Mr. Karzai's refusal to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement has virtually no support among Afghans. He does not speak for them. And in a few months he will not be leading them. It would be worse than folly to base policies touching long-term American interests on the outbursts of a jaded politician fading gracelessly from the scene.

The only reason that remains for abandoning Afghanistan is the belief that the cause there is simply lost. It is clear that many advisers to the president such as Douglas Lute have long thought so, opposing a counterinsurgency strategy on the grounds that it cannot succeed and is not necessary. Possibly President Obama himself has come to the conclusion that the strategy he endorsed and partially resourced in 2009 was mistaken.

The facts do not support this belief. Eight years of a very light-footprint, development-oriented, targeted-strike-focused strategy in Afghanistan left the Taliban on the verge of seizing Kandahar City and almost all of Southern Afghanistan in 2009. Mr. Karzai then was in reality little more than the mayor of Kabul, whose approaches the Taliban controlled or contested. There were fewer than 100,000 members in the ANSF—police and army combined—for a country of 32 million. They were equipped with rifles and pickup trucks. The Afghan Air Force did not fly a single aircraft.

Five years on things are very different. The Taliban have failed to regain their former positions in and around Kandahar despite the withdrawal of most of the international forces. They are fighting hard to regain positions in Helmand that had formerly been their fortified strongholds—and Afghans are fighting back. The ANSF numbers over 350,000, with increasingly modern vehicles, artillery and even its own helicopter support. Some Taliban strongholds around Kabul have been disrupted, although the premature withdrawal of the surge forces has left lethal foes too close to Afghanistan's capital (and international airport). Complaints that Mr. Karzai controls too much of Afghanistan are valid—but more promising in some respects than when he controlled nothing at all. Corruption and hyper-centralization can be corrected, albeit with great difficulty. Anarchy is infinitely harder to cure.

And Afghanistan still matters to American national security. Mr. Obama was right in 2008 when he called Afghanistan "a war that must be won." The al Qaeda franchises growing around the world threaten the U.S. more imminently than their confederates in Afghanistan or possibly even Pakistan. But they are all looking expectantly to the defeat of another superpower in South Asia. They intend to re-establish themselves in the land where bin Laden founded their organization and from which he hurled planes like thunderbolts at the American foe. History matters to these people and it should matter to us.

Withdrawal from Afghanistan, whether financial or military or both, will be a defeat for the U.S. and a victory for al Qaeda. It really is that simple.

Politicians on both sides of the aisle can speechify and expound arguments about how we are winning and losing simultaneously, and how, either way, we should leave now. They may persuade themselves and the American people. But they will be just as wrong as George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton were to ignore Afghanistan in the 1990s, to our great pain and suffering.

We have seen many times what will happen if the U.S. adopts the policy now being leaked. We can be sure that it will end very badly for us.