General Petraeus and the new optimism

While most of the world is focused on the tragedy unfolding in Japan, Washington today was all about Afghanistan. In front of the Senate Armed Services Committee, General David Petraeus, commander of U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan, gave much-anticipated testimony on the progress of the war. Not too surprisingly, the general had good news:

As a bottom line up front, it is ISAF’s assessment that the momentum achieved by the Taliban in Afghanistan since 2005 has been arrested in much of the country and reversed in a number of important areas. However, while the security progress achieved over the past year is significant, it is also fragile and reversible. Moreover, it is clear that much difficult work lies ahead with our Afghan partners to solidify and expand our gains in the face of the expected Taliban spring offensive. Nonetheless, the hard-fought achievements in 2010 and early 2011 have enabled the Joint Afghan-NATO Transition Board to recommend initiation this spring of transition to Afghan lead in several provinces.

I have previously argued that current U.S. Afghan policy appears to be less concerned with ensuring long-term stability in Afghanistan than creating favorable short-term improvements to facilitate a withdrawal. The policy of supporting militias and warlords is indicative of a very cynical approach to Afghanistan. However, reading Petraeus’ testimony leaves me slightly hesitant about my previous conclusion.

The red line going through the general’s testimony was that the war is proceeding well, and the Afghans themselves are soon ready to take on a larger share of responsibility for their own security. This is perhaps the largest prerequisite for a U.S. troop withdrawal, so Petraeus spent a considerable amount of time hailing the progress that’s being made with the Afghan National Security Force (ANSF) – nevermind the serious concerns about the viability of the ANSF. While laying down the usual qualifications (withdrawal contingent upon situation on the ground), Petraeus claimed that things are looking up in Afghanistan. However, the general was looking beyond this coming summer:

As a number of ISAF national leaders have noted in recent months, we need to focus not just on the year ahead, but increasingly on the goal agreed at Lisbon of having Afghan forces in the lead throughout Afghanistan by the end of 2014. Indeed, we need to ensure that we take a sufficiently long view to ensure that our actions in the months ahead enable long-term achievement in the years ahead. We have refined our campaign plan to do just that – and we are also now beginning to look beyond 2014, as well, as the United States and Afghanistan – and NATO and Afghanistan – discuss possible strategic partnerships. All of this is enormously reassuring to our Afghan partners – and of considerable concern to the Taliban. (my emphasis)

Exactly what “beyond 2014” means, is uncertain. The Obama administration has never been clear about its long-term plans for Afghanistan. It has alluded to long-term presence, and building up the ANSF will most certainly require many years of economic and technical support, yet the administration won’t spell out what the goals are.

In front of the Senate Armed Services Committee, General Petraeus did little to dispel the impression that the United States lacks a strategy in Afghanistan. He noted the importance of denying al Qaeda a safe haven, even though the terrorist network allegedly has less than 100 operatives in Afghanistan and has set up branches elsewhere. Beyond that, there was no talk about the strategic value of Afghanistan to the United States. Instead, the general deferred to Congress:

As many of you have noted in the past, our objectives in Afghanistan and in the region are of vital importance, and we must do all that we can to achieve those objectives. Those of us on the ground believe that the strategy on which we are embarked provides the best approach for doing just that, noting, as dialogue with President Karzai has reminded us at various junctures, that we must constantly refine our activities in response to changes in the circumstances on the ground. Needless to say, we will continue to make adjustments, in close consultation with our Afghan and international counterparts in Afghanistan, as the situation evolves.

General Petraeus is not the one responsible for setting policy and defining national security, yet it is telling that a major speech set to defend the administration’s policy is so bereft of strategic reasoning. The assumption that nation-building is the best and only way of preventing future attacks from al Qaeda is just that: an assumption. It might be a correct assumption, but the ease of which policymakers in Washington skip over such complicated matters is worrying.

I suspect the Obama administration’s Afghanistan policy will continue to wobble along, offering some troop withdrawals to the public while failing to solve the larger strategic issues and thus ensuring long-term presence. As C.J. Chivers noted in an excellent analysis last week, U.S. tactical efforts in Afghanistan are consistently undermined by larger strategic forces. Nothing in Petraeus’ testimony today indicated that this gap is being bridged.

Perhaps Petraeus and the White House genuinely feel there is no need for a strategic reassessment, and the current plan is a sound plan. However, that feeling is shared by fewer and fewer in the United States. According to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll, nearly two-thirds of Americans feel the war is no longer worth fighting. The Obama administration is also getting increasingly challenged in Congress. Timed with Petraeus’ testimony today, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) announced that she is putting forth new legislating aimed at pushing through a clear withdrawal plan from Afghanistan.

Gillibrand, the five senators cosponsoring the bill, and a large part of the American public do not seem to share the administration’s optimism about the progress of the war. They might be right, because this is hardly the first time the United States has announced a turning point in Afghanistan and then been proven decisively wrong (as Katherine Tiedemann pointed out on Twitter during today’s hearing). With spring and another Taliban offensive looming, we will know soon enough whether the new optimism is more of the same.

Comments are closed.