Now begins a two-year endgame.
Less than a week after a brazen attack inflicted the biggest loss of U.S. military aircraft since Vietnam, and as the Air Force begins deploying its deadly flying-cannon AC-130 gunships over Afghanistan during daylight hours to suppress the Taliban, President Obama’s three-year surge of 33,000 U.S. troops into Afghanistan has ended. It happened the same day that Afghan President Hamid Karzai sacked the pro-U.S. governor of a key province in the southern part of the country.
Some will suggest that the surge’s end is a pre-election strategy designed to improve Obama’s chances of getting votes from citizens weary of 11 years of war. Others insist it’s the only way to prod Afghanistan into securing its own territory. But as the surge ends, one question hangs: Are its gains — largely territory in southern Helmand and Kandahar provinces — real or fleeting?
“There’s no question there will continue to be difficult days ahead,” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said during a stop in New Zealand while on a Pacific trip. “But this is an opportunity to recognize that the surge did accomplish its objectives.”
Yet another surge — of insider, or so-called green-on-blue attacks — has led to a reduction in the partnering of U.S. and Afghan forces. Such training, U.S. military officials say, is vital to honing the combat skills of the Afghan security forces. Any reduction in that training gives the enemy an edge. There’s a nervous twitch in some quarters of the Pentagon and at the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) headquarters in Kabul. Is the Afghan glass half-full or half-empty?
Panetta, the politician running the Pentagon, says the rash of Taliban attacks “is kind of a last-gasp effort to be able to not only target our forces but to try to create chaos, because they’ve been unable to regain any of the territory that they have lost.” But Army General Martin Dempsey, who as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs is the nation’s top military officer, terms it “a very serious threat” to the campaign.
Like all war tactics, the surge was a political act carried out by the military. Obama pointedly announced it at West Point, allowing him to declare that he wouldn’t shortchange the Afghan conflict as President Bush had done to invade Iraq. Afghanistan, after all, was seen by many Americans as the “good war,” justified by the 9/11 attacks, while Iraq was a war of choice largely motivated by weapons of mass destruction that no longer existed.
The surge’s goal was simple: to wipe the Taliban out of wide swaths of Afghanistan and let an improving Afghan military take over security. “The surge accomplished its objectives of reversing Taliban momentum on the battlefield and dramatically increased the size and capability of the Afghan National Security Forces,” Panetta said. “This growth has allowed us and our ISAF coalition partners to begin the process of transition to Afghan security lead, which will soon extend across every province and more than 75% of the Afghan population.”
But there is concern among many in uniform that the rush to pull the surge forces out of Afghanistan — conveniently before the election — will jeopardize the gains that have been made. Most of the 68,000 troops still there will return home by the end of 2014, although Kabul and Washington have agreed that some military trainers and perhaps special-operations forces will remain. The U.S. troop presence reached its peak of 101,000 last year.
Even as the surge ends, there are signs that the war goes on, both in military and political spheres.
Air Force Lieut. General Eric Fiel, the service’s top special-ops commander, said this week that his AC-130 gunships, with their huge 105-mm cannons, are now flying daytime missions over Afghanistan. “We have not flown gunships during the day before, but they are currently flying during the day” there, he said at the Air Force Association’s annual meeting outside Washington. New sensors allow the planes to see bad guys from further away, apparently beyond the reach of enemy weapons. Unfortunately, the new sensors, he said, “allow us a longer standoff range, which caused a little problem since the weapons can’t engage targets at that range.” The Air Force is working that issue.
A bigger problem is Karzai’s decision Thursday to fire Mohammad Gulab Mangal, the pro-U.S. governor of Helmand province, who has long been viewed as one of the nation’s best leaders. He stood alongside a U.S. general in July for a press conference that was piped into the Pentagon from Camp Leatherneck in Helmand province. Mangal said he wasn’t concerned about the pullout of U.S. troops. “Taliban will try their best to disrupt the security situation,” he said. “But now ANSF — Afghan National Security Forces — are at the level that they can maintain the security of the Helmand province.”
Karzai’s office didn’t detail why the President ousted Mangal, who holds an appointed, not elected, office. U.S. officials suggested Karzai may have viewed him as a political threat and that his canning is part of the messy business of trying to build a more democratic government. Its impact on the Taliban in Helmand remains an open question.