April 22, 2014

Snatching Failure from Victory in Afghanistan

Originally published in The Weekly Standard
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden meets with U.S. troops in Maidan Wardak province in Afghanistan January 11, 2011. (Reuters)

Media reports suggest that President Obama is looking to declare victory and withdraw from Afghanistan, as he did from Iraq. The military commander in Afghanistan, General Joe Dunford, has said that he needs 10,000 US troops to accomplish the missions the president has said he wants to accomplish after this year. That number is probably half of what is actually required, by our estimates, but enough to keep options open for the next president. 

But who cares what General Dunford says when you have "General" Joe Biden, who has consistently been pressing for numbers in the 3,000 range that are militarily unrealistic. That many troops can hardly defend themselves, let alone do anything to the enemy. The claim that the successful Afghan elections justify this irresponsibility was as inevitable as it is ludicrous—the White House long ago put itself in the happy position of being able to use any event to justify what it wants. If Afghanistan is going well, then we declare victory. If it’s going badly, we declare that it’s hopeless. In either case, General Biden and the man who really seems to be running our foreign policy—Ben Rhodes—get their wish. Within a short time, the U.S. will be out of Afghanistan.

We’ve seen this movie before. In 2011, President Obama announced that our troops were leaving Iraq not only because the Iraqis wouldn’t make a deal to keep them there that we liked, but also because Iraq was doing so well. Obama told the soldiers of the 82nd Airborne Division that “we're leaving behind a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq.” Asked about the prospects for post-withdrawal stability, Ben Rhodes tweeted, “Iraqis have proven they can provide for security. They will continue to develop Security Forces/govt with our assistance #WHChat.” Asked how we would prevent al Qaeda from returning to Iraq, he added, “Iraqi Security Forces will be in lead. We helped train and equip them to go after al Qaeda. US has degraded AQ globally. #WHChat.” 

Well, it turns out—as many of us warned—that the Iraqi Security Forces were not ready to operate on their own and that Iraq was not stable enough for us to leave. And now, al Qaeda in Iraq (renamed the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham) has regained most of its safe havens within Iraq, spread into Syria, and is now even starting to bid for control of the al Qaeda movement globally after a nasty break with al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri.

Afghanistan is doing remarkably well given the inappropriately rapid withdrawal of surge forces there, well before they had been allowed to accomplish the key tasks for which they had been requested. The election was remarkably peaceful, protected largely by Afghan security forces. And it appears that Afghanistan will have a peaceful, democratic transition of power to someone not named Karzai or affiliated with the Karzai family—the first such in its history. But its forces were not designed to operate without any international support and they will not be able to. If we follow through with the White House-leaked plans, listening to Generals Biden and Rhodes rather than Dunford, we can expect the rapid erosion of stability in Afghanistan. We can also expect the return of al Qaeda there, as it has returned to Iraq. We can expect, in other words, yet another instance of snatching failure from the jaws of success.