Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced last week an unexpectedly early deadline of summer 2013 for winding down the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan.
Well, kind of, supposedly, or perhaps with the same amount of seriousness that the administration took the July 2011 drawdown deadline that never was. The same New York Times story reporting on Panetta’s announcement also notes that “Mr. Panetta said no decisions had been made about the number of American troops to be withdrawn in 2013, and he made clear that substantial fighting lies ahead.” (In other words, there are plenty of American soldiers and Afghans alike who will still be dying for a mistake.)
Part of what Panetta means is that Special Operations—still U.S. military, still involved in fighting—will be taking on more of the burden of our impossible mission and possibly even increasing in number, while conventional forces start leaving in larger numbers.
This is likely to be just one more example of a decade's worth of pronouncements from American officials about progress or improvement in Afghanistan that shouldn’t be taken very seriously. As Foreign Policy reported last week following Panetta’s much hyped statement:
In Chicago, meanwhile, the President's Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes insisted there will be no change to the 2014 plan [agreed to in a Lisbon meeting in 2010 by NATO], warning that "We will need allies to remain committed to that goal." The president's Special Assistant for European Affairs Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, evidently ignorant of Panetta's statement, assured reporters that the Secretary of Defense "will be very clear about our plans to remain on the Lisbon timeline.”
About 90,000 U.S. troops are there now, with up to 22,000 supposedly already set to leave before the end of 2012. As The New York Times reports, there has “been no decision on the number of troops to be committed to the mission as it evolves in 2013 and into 2014.”
Another possible barrier between Panetta’s intentions and reality in 2013/2014 is the election between now and then. While Mitt Romney, the most likely Republican contender, has approved of the end-of-2014 withdrawal, he also seems to think that Panetta’s announced plan to have the Afghans assume more responsibility for their own security starting before then is unconscionable. Romney announces that he intends, somehow, to end the war “by beating” the Taliban. As a decade and more of U.S. forces and commanders might say, good luck with that.
France has also declared that it is bugging out with its 3,900 troops (most of them hunkered down in defensive positions nowadays—U.S. forces have long complained about the political restrictions our European allies place on their small numbers of troops) ahead of its NATO compatriots by end of 2013. That announcement came at a joint appearance of French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Afghan President Hamid Karzai, where Karzai seemed to agree with Sarkozy that getting foreign combat troops out by that deadline would be a good thing. But then again Karzai has never been a satisfactory satrap, even beyond the questionable “democracy” behind his elected leadership in a land to which we are allegedly trying to bring real democracy.
In his interesting new book The Operators—spun off the Rolling Stone feature that cost Gen. Stanley McChrystal his job leading our Afghan forces by revealing his and his staff’s contempt for their civilian chain of command—reporter Michael Hastings notes that our own diplomats often understand that “U.S. forces are not fighting and dying to combat terrorists, but are fighting and dying in local political disputes.”
Our forces on the ground rarely understood the specifics of the complicated tribal chaos they were involved in, and in specific cases, as Hastings concluded, having our troops leave any specific valley “is as meaningless as staying in those valleys—no impact on our national security or the stability in Afghanistan whatsoever.”
Despite all our efforts, our military and security situation in Afghanistan has been getting worse—2011 saw the highest number of civilian deaths in the war since it began, at 3,000. And they’ve been getting steadily worse, with each of the past five years having a higher number of deaths than the year before. In 2011, 410 of those deaths were directly caused by U.S. and allied forces, even beyond the question of how many of those deaths were caused by the fact that we are there providing a reason and target for Taliban insurgents to attack. See this marvelously deadpan detail from The New York Times: “French ground troops remain only in Kapisa Province, a relatively quiet area with little insurgent sympathy or activity, other than a few suicide bomb attacks on the French.”
As I noted in 2010, too many American big thinkers and military strategists feel aggrieved by the Afghans' "failure" to rise to the occasion that our invasion and occupation are supposed to have provided for them. It’s true our allies and enemies are equally menaces to our troops—Afghan soldiers are occasionally killing or attacking our own, and those of the French and our other allies, in more than three dozen incidents in the past five years. Not that our troops haven’t been also wantonly killing civilians as well, and urinating on dead soldiers’ corpses to boot. Let’s say there are curious tensions on all sides of this contentious relationship between occupiers and occupied. The Afghan army we will want to take up our mantle as we leave is largely written off, even by U.S. analysts, as a bunch of illiterate, craven, deserting, drug addicts who are likely to just be the enemy in disguise anyway. Since the “enemy” is also just another huge gang of armed Afghans, this isn’t too surprising.
Lt. Col Daniel Davis wrote at length about his own on-the-ground experiences in Afghanistan for Armed Forces Journal. He wrote:
What I saw bore no resemblance to rosy official statements by U.S. military leaders about conditions on the ground…. In all of the places I visited, the tactical situation was bad to abysmal. If the events I have described [numerous anecdotes of security failures and fecklessness and out-of-control violence]— and many, many more I could mention — had been in the first year of war, or even the third or fourth, one might be willing to believe that Afghanistan was just a hard fight, and we should stick it out. Yet these incidents all happened in the 10th year of war.
As the numbers depicting casualties and enemy violence indicate the absence of progress, so too did my observations of the tactical situation all over Afghanistan.