Reduced U.S. Role in Afghanistan: Politics, By Other Means

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Navy photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Jared E. Walker

Afghan National Army soldiers taking a fiber-optics (!) class in Kabul

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s statement Wednesday that the U.S. plans to hand off all combat missions in Afghanistan sometime in 2013 has triggered howls from hawks who maintain it’s a step down a slippery slope headed to defeat. They may have a point. Nonetheless, the Obama Administration has plainly decided that its goals are better served by a calendar-driven pullout from Afghanistan.

The Administration’s bottom line, if you read between the lines, is simple: the war in Afghanistan has gone on for too long, the American people are tired of it, and we are bringing our troops home at all deliberate speed.

Yet shifting from a combat role to a training and assist role – what Panetta wants to happen sometime next year – is a fuzzy line that commanders can blur for certain units and in certain provinces. “A shift in mission statement has been talked about for several months, and that not much may change on the ground,” says an officer heading into the fight shortly. “The mission statement can say partnering/mentoring instead of combat, but if a Afghan-U.S. patrol gets in a fight, those U.S. troops will still fight the same way they were doing before. A lot of that is already going on.”

But the bottom line is clear: the U.S. is eyeing the exits and accelerating the process to depart. This should come as scant surprise: some military experts were upset when Obama declared U.S. troops would be gone by 2015; all Panetta did Wednesday was flesh out a decision already made by the President. The military justification for such action is simple: unless you tell the Afghans that they’re on their own, Americans will keep doing the fighting, and the dying.

But that’s about it. If a commander’s goal is to crush the Taliban, he’s going to want the U.S. military fighting them through each of the next two summers. That’s apparently not going to happen. By and large, Democrats will cheer the move, contending a decade of war –- and 1,890 U.S. deaths – are enough. Republicans acknowledge the cost, but insist that pulling out before the U.S. troops have cemented the gains for which they have fought and died means their sacrifice may end up in vain.

There is no doubt that the U.S. and its Afghan and other allies have made good progress in the southern part of the country over the past two years. But few military officers Battleland has spoken with over the past six months feel Afghanistan’s own military will be capable of handling its security adequately by 2015, when all U.S. troops are due to leave – never mind 18 months before that.

Rep. Howard McKeon, R-Calif., chairman of the armed services committee, echoes those views. “Announcing a change in mission in Afghanistan — before we have even validated that the Afghan Security Forces can maintain stability in the areas we have already transitioned and ahead of the fighting season — is premature,” he said. “While there have certainly been improvements in the Afghan Security Forces’ capabilities, the Committee has not seen a single assessment by our commanders that indicates they have any confidence in such a swift transition.”

Max Boot, a military scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations, sounds gob-smacked by Panetta’s announcement. “Only in some alternative universe is this a winning strategy,” he writes. “In the world we actually inhabit it is a recipe for a slow-motion—or maybe not so slow—catastrophe.”

Fred Kagan, one of the architects of the 2007 “surge” of U.S. forces into Iraq, says Panetta’s announcement is premature:

There is no occasion to make any such decisions until the end of this fighting season or early in 2013 itself. When we have made the gains we can and must make, and when we have consolidated them to ensure that our efforts were not wasted and our security is not endangered—only then should we talk about drawing down more troops or changing their mission. To do otherwise is to court disaster.

All valid points, but to some degree beside the point. Wars never occur in a vacuum. A nation’s will and wallet get to vote, as does the calendar. “This decision,” Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona said, “reflects domestic politics in the United States, not conditions on the ground in Afghanistan.” Or, as Carl von Clausewitz preferred to put it: war is a continuation of politics by other means. So is, the major-general would agree, ending wars.