Lowering Expectations for the War in Afghanistan

Lowering Expectations for the War in Afghanistan

Time was kind to the U.S. over its invasion of Iraq: the Bush Administration was able to waste four years pursuing misguided strategies there before finally getting things right last year and turning the situation around. But the new U.S. military approach to winning the war in Afghanistan is likely to take years, if not decades, to bear fruit, and there are growing signs that America’s patience is fraying. On July 23, Vice President Joe Biden acknowledged that a lot more sacrifice would be required of Americans, but insisted that it was worth the price to “straighten out” the Afghan-Pakistan border region because of the terror threat it potentially represents to Europe and the U.S. Still, American officials are lowering expectations after nearly eight years of fighting in Afghanistan, insisting that progress rather than victory is the best that can be achieved over the coming year.

“We’ve seen the security for the Afghan people deteriorate over the last three years,” Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told troops during a visit to southern Afghanistan on July 17. “We have to start to turn that tide over the next 12 to 18 months.” Even as Mullen was hoping for a year and a half to turn things around, Defense Secretary Robert Gates was acknowledging the same day that the U.S. public is war-weary, and that progress therefore must come quickly. “After the Iraq experience, nobody is prepared to have a long slog where it is not apparent we are making headway,” Gates told the Los Angeles Times. “The troops are tired; the American people are pretty tired.”

Gates and Mullen face a raft of festering problems in Afghanistan: the Taliban and its allies are growing stronger, and they have killed 35 U.S. troops in the first three weeks of July — more than in any month since the U.S. invaded in October 2001. The Afghan government is salted with corruption, while its prisons are hellholes that turn citizens against their government. Pakistan remains a safe haven for launching attacks against U.S. and NATO troops in eastern Afghanistan, and despite the Obama Administration’s strenuous efforts at persuasion, Islamabad shows little interest in extending its campaign against domestic extremism into a fight against the Afghan insurgency.

To grapple with the war he inherited, President Obama has made several important changes. He and Gates fired the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan in May, and replaced him with General Stanley McChrystal, who is currently in the middle of a 60-day assessment of how to turn the Afghan war around. Obama is dispatching an additional 21,000 American troops there this year, bringing the total to 68,000 by 2010. His commanders recently ordered 4,000 Marines into Helmand province to begin the long process of “clear, hold and build” — driving the Taliban out of its strongholds, staying there to make sure the insurgents don’t return and rebuilding civil institutions crushed by 30 years of war.

While Americans might believe these latest moves are helping put the Afghan war back on track, a report released July 22 by the independent Center for Strategic and International Studies says much more needs to be done. This Washington-based think tank is no bunch of liberal do-gooders: it’s run by John Hamre, a former Pentagon deputy secretary who also currently serves as the chairman of the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board, which advises Gates on national-security issues.

The author, military expert Anthony Cordesman, pulls no punches. “It’s very clear we haven’t put the money in to win, we haven’t put the troops in to win, and we haven’t given the Afghan security forces the resources to win,” Cordesman told TIME on July 22. His 28-page study, titled “The Afghanistan Campaign: Can We Win,” raises strong doubts about Washington’s willingness to do what he thinks is needed to prevail. Its conclusion is bleak: “The odds of success are not yet good, and failure is all too real a possibility.” And Cordesman isn’t some ivory-tower critic — he has just returned from a month in Afghanistan, where he served as a member of McChrystal’s strategic assessment group.

The war, Cordesman writes, has been bungled since the U.S. launched it after the 9/11 attacks to punish the Taliban for sheltering Osama bin Laden. “Americans need to understand that the war has been critically under-resourced for seven years, almost totally because of U.S. decisions and mistakes,” his report says. “This has been the key reason the insurgents have taken the initiative.” He argues that the Pentagon should be ready to dispatch between three and six brigade combat teams over the coming year. “This is an American-led war, and large increases in U.S. military forces will be needed to win it,” he writes. Yet such troop hikes will only further unnerve those in Congress — especially Democrats — who fear Afghanistan could become Obama’s Vietnam.

The Afghan army — now 86,000 strong with a goal of fielding 134,000 — actually needs 240,000 troops; the 82,000-strong Afghan national police force needs to grow to 160,000, Cordesman argues. And time is running out. “The situation has deteriorated into a crisis where the Taliban and other jihadist movements are now winning,” he writes. “The steady deterioration of security has now reached the crisis level.”

Gates and other Americans eager to see rapid progress in Afghanistan need to know, argues Cordesman, that turning the situation around — even with added troops and money — will require “lasting strategic patience.” Even then, they may want to recalibrate their expectations. “Many aspects of the progress required can only move at an Afghan pace,” Cordesman writes, “and must be achieved on Afghan terms.” But the question of whether America has the patience to maintain its commitment on such an extended time frame is precisely what has Gates worried.

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