This editorial will appear in Sunday’s print edition.
The surge in Afghanistan began with a bang. It just ended in a whimper.
In case you hadn’t noticed, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta mentioned its conclusion while on the other side of the planet, in New Zealand. As of a week ago, the United States had finished drawing down the 33,000 additional troops Barack Obama deployed to Afghanistan after he took office in 2009 – his chief contribution to the war.
The quiet from the White House suggests ambivalence about the results, or at least a desire not to inject Afghanistan into the presidential race. Otherwise Obama would be declaring victory and trumpeting success.
The combat units of Joint Base Lewis-McChord – our neighbors – have sacrificed lives, limbs and blood for the cause of a non-terrorist Afghanistan, so we have all the more reason to hope for decisive results from any U.S. strategy.
But like the 11-year-old war itself, the surge can be construed as either a success or a failure. The Taliban suffered major reverses as U.S. combat units pushed into territories the guerrillas had terrorized or dominated. The streets of Kandahar and other cities in the Taliban heartland of southern Afghanistan are much safer as a result.
Still, the Taliban is a long way from being defeated. It remains a tenacious fighting force, and it has the strategic advantage of a home base in Pakistan beyond the reach of U.S. and allied troops. If the Pakistani government ever decided to stop harboring the guerrillas, Afghanistan’s long-term prospects would look a whole lot brighter.
Despite the big offensives of the last three years, America’s longest war isn’t going to end anytime soon. NATO still has 100,000 troops in the country, 68,000 of them American, and the last U.S. combat ground units aren’t scheduled to leave for another two years.
One of the goals of the surge was to give Hamid Karzai’s government enough breathing space to build up the country’s security forces – which will ultimately have to defend their own country without American boots on the ground.
The Afghan forces have in fact been strengthened by 50,000 troops, and they are substantially better trained. Yet the Taliban insurgents may end up poised to ratchet up their attacks as soon as NATO pulls out. That doesn’t mean they’ll win, but it does mean this fractured and tribal country is a long way from the relative stability of Iraq – where the Army’s counterinsurgency tactics did finally prevail.
Only the passage of years will tell whether the surge helped secure a peaceful and vaguely decent government in Afghanistan. The drawdown has one unambiguous result: Fewer U.S. – and JBLM – troops will be dying there. That news is unambiguously positive.