President Obama built his Afghanistan strategy around the bet that he could quickly turn around a “must win” war by narrowing his goals and sending more troops. This weekend he will make his clearest acknowledgement yet that doing so will actually take years.
At a summit in Lisbon this weekend, Obama and other NATO leaders will endorse a plan to gradually turn combat responsibility over to the Afghan army and police by 2014, a timetable that will keep tens of thousands of U.S. combat troops in Afghanistan well beyond the end of Obama’s first term.
U.S. and Afghan officials previously have made it clear that Afghanistan will need U.S. help against the insurgency for many years, but the transition plan being presented in Lisbon will be the first time Obama publicly backs such a time frame.
“Reality is starting to set in,” said retired U.S. Army Lt. Gen David Barno, who commanded U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005. “There’s a better appreciation by the administration that you can’t have instantaneous results.”
Even as Obama has dramatically increased troop levels to nearly 100,000 during his first two years, he has sought to avoid becoming bogged down. He set a major review of policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan for the end of 2010, and said that troops would start leaving Afghanistan by July 2011. He has emphasized that the United States’ goal is to “degrade” the Taliban, not to defeat it.
The full effect of the U.S. troop buildup isn’t clear yet. Military officers familiar with data coming in from the field say there have been some promising gains, especially in areas of the south where tens of thousands of additional U.S. troops have been sent. The number of Taliban fighters captured and killed has increased sharply, but so have insurgent attacks and casualties suffered by Americans and other members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization force.
Training of Afghan security forces has accelerated, but many units, especially the police, remain poorly trained, corrupt and unable to battle the insurgency without Western assistance, particularly in areas where the Taliban remains strongest.
In the White House, confidence that U.S. involvement could be carefully calibrated has given way to a more sober assessment that lasting gains may take years to accomplish.
The review of policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan, which began last month, is no longer expected to result in recommendations for changes to the strategy, a senior administration official said. Obama and his advisers now appear unlikely to consider deep reductions in U.S. forces next year.
There is a “recognition of the fact that the Afghans cannot be ready to assume full responsibility for their security before 2014 and the United States and its allies cannot afford to allow the country to relapse into anarchy, which is quite likely what would happen if the they left too early,” said James Dobbins, a former U.S. envoy to Afghanistan.
After more than nine years of war, Obama cannot afford politically to allow Afghanistan to slide back into chaos. Even though the U.S. military now seems certain to remain on the ground for years to come, the circumstances offer the president some political cover.
Republicans, who are taking control of the House of Representatives in January and gaining seats in the Senate, generally support continuing the mission in Afghanistan. The war attracted little attention during the campaign for this month’s mid-term elections, which were fought over domestic issue. Obama might be able to keep it off the agenda in 2012, as well.
The president can also argue that he put the campaign in the hands of his most capable commander, Gen. David H. Petraeus, who is credited with devising and executing a strategy that helped halt the Sunni Arab insurgency in Iraq.
Petraeus, whom Obama appointed the top NATO commander in Afghanistan this summer, is said to be wary of drawing down U.S. forces too quickly next year, fearing that it could jeopardize any gains.
The general has directed his staff to study data from commanders and units in the field for indications of progress to share with Obama and other NATO leaders when he briefs them during the summit, several aides said.
But a senior U.S. military commander, noting that fighting is expected to die down in the winter as it usually does in Afghanistan, said it won’t be clear until next year whether the U.S. has done permanent damage to the Taliban. “We won’t know until next spring whether what we are inflicting is permanent damage on the enemy or whether he can regenerate,” the officer said.
During a White House debate last year, Vice President Joe Biden pressed for an alternative plan that would have relied on special operations forces, airstrikes and intelligence operations to keep Al Qaeda under pressure in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Obama rejected the idea in favor of a counter-insurgency strategy and more troops. But he also sent a memorandum to his commanders and senior advisers that specified U.S. troops would begin coming home July 2011 — a deadline that he said was meant to convey a sense of urgency and “allow us to accelerate handing over responsibility to Afghan forces.”
White House aides said Afghan security forces will probably begin taking over security responsibility in some provinces next year, perhaps by late spring. But U.S. and other NATO combat forces will be in the lead for years to come.
Mark Sedwill, NATO’s senior civilian representative to Afghanistan, said this week that the transition to Afghan control could go into “2015 and beyond.” The year 2014 is a “goal” that is “realistic but not guaranteed,” he said.
Some analysts contend that if the insurgency remains as strong as ever next summer, Obama could face renewed pressure to shift course from European governments and advisers skeptical of the Afghan war.
“If the strategy doesn’t reduce the violence by next July they will need a Plan B,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a military scholar with the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.
Even after Afghan forces are given control of a province, NATO troops will be positioned to respond quickly if assistance is needed. By the end of 2014, combat forces could be withdrawn if conditions permit, although tens of thousands very likely will remain for training and advising Afghan units.
The transition “won’t happen overnight,” said Doug Lute, a senior White House adviser on Afghanistan told reporters Tuesday. “It will be a steady, progressive process.”