Last week, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta stated publicly for the first time that the United States would end combat operations in Afghanistan by mid-2013. While the defense secretary argued that U.S. forces would follow the model of the American withdrawal from Iraq, it seems more likely that it will repeat the mistakes made by the Soviets during their withdrawal from Afghanistan nearly 25 years ago. Let's be clear: deciding to withdraw from Afghanistan is not the problem. There are many legitimate arguments to be made for the U.S. to have pulled out of Afghanistan long ago -- such as after the assassination of Osama Bin Laden. The main problem is the way in which the withdrawal is being conducted by the United States. Its activities will do nothing to advance the American role in Afghanistan or around the world. On the contrary, it may ultimately result in further coalition casualties, and embolden the Taliban, Iran, Pakistan, and al Qaeda.
U.S. and NATO forces have a history of contradicting themselves when it comes to policies in Afghanistan. Soon after Panetta's comments, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh-Rasmussen explained that "this change of role takes into account the actual security situation on the ground." These comments eerily mimic earlier contradictions made by the U.S. government. In November of 2010, the Obama administration first announced that U.S. forces would be fully withdrawn from Afghanistan by the end of 2014. President Obama added that the "transition will be conditions-based, not calendar-driven, and will not equate to withdrawal of ISAF-troops." Yet it was not long before Vice President Biden changed tunes, explaining that 2014 was a "drop dead date" for "transitioning" power to Afghan authorities. Beginning this year, tens of thousands of ISAF combat forces will be pulled out of Afghanistan, and nobody really believes anybody will reverse this course should conditions further deteriorate... surely the Taliban do not.
In the case of the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, the United States managed to successfully put an end to the violent insurgencies being waged by both the Sunnis and Shiites prior to announcing its date for withdrawal. This was done through a combination of successful counter-insurgency operations as well as through negotiations with insurgent groups. Once those negotiations were successful, and with the military now in control of a quelled insurgency campaign, the U.S. government was able to further negotiate an effective withdrawal with the Iraqi government. Whatever happens to Iraq in the future, it will be difficult for anybody to legitimately argue that the United States was forced out of Iraq by insurgents, and therefore U.S. deterrent power -- something not to be underestimated -- will remain intact. Due to recent moves by the Obama administration and its European partners, at this point in time the same will not be said for a future withdrawal from Afghanistan.
In examining a number of past withdrawals from insurgencies, many important lessons were found that the Obama administration has thus far failed to incorporate or comprehend. First and foremost is the need to establish realistic goals. After more than 10 years of combat in Afghanistan, it has become less clear -- not more -- as to why ISAF forces remain.
Most Americans and Europeans are unclear as to what our goals and objectives are for Afghanistan. If it was simply to destroy al Qaeda, this has largely been accomplished for quite some time. If it's to destroy the Taliban and create a relatively united country, we should be prepared to remain in Afghanistan for many more decades to come. If it's to establish a Western-style democracy, we can expect to be there for centuries. When the United States invaded Afghanistan after 9/11, the only stated goal was to go after al Qaeda and put an end to their safe haven. That safe haven has now largely moved to Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and elsewhere. Whatever the case may be, without knowing the goals we set out for, it's difficult for us to claim that we accomplished our mission in Afghanistan, or to justify that our men and women need to remain in that country for even one more day, let alone another two years.
A second lesson to be learned from studies of past counterinsurgency withdrawals, is that while states can and should negotiate with their adversaries they should only do so when they are in a position of strength, not of weakness. The United States began negotiations with the Taliban only after declaring that all ISAF forces will withdraw from Afghanistan by 2014. This removed most incentive for the Taliban to negotiate in good faith or moderate its stance. The newest declarations that the U.S. and NATO will end combat operations by mid-2013 can only worsen the outcome of negotiations. The Taliban now know for certain that whatever the outcome of negotiations, within a few years the West will not be there to prevent the Taliban from maximizing their goals or negate their claims that they alone defeated the United States and NATO.
A final critical lesson the Obama Administration has missed is that states should only declare red lines that they are willing and able to enforce. American and NATO claims that the withdrawal is "conditions-based" is not in keeping with this principle. Nobody believes that a significant number of ISAF forces will remain past 2014 at most. Right now we are trying to bluff our way through negotiations with the Taliban, even though we have showed our cards before the poker game even began. So much of conducting a successful counterinsurgency is the ability to win over the domestic population and establish their trust. That will be more and more difficult as local Afghanis know that ISAF forces are leaving shortly, and that there will be retribution once the Americans are gone.
To combat these efforts, the U.S. military has promised to push deeper into enemy strongholds and fight more aggressively against the Taliban in the lead up to the withdrawal. If the cases of Israel in Lebanon or France in Algeria are a good indication, the likelihood of the U.S. succeeding in that task is low. More likely the increased combat will see an emboldened enemy hungry to bloody the retreating Western power and tear apart the uneasy alliance with the Afghan military. Alternatively, the Taliban may follow the lead of the Mujahideen during the finals years of the Soviet occupation, and lay low until outside forces have departed.
As the Obama Administration has attempted to paint a picture of counterinsurgency successes, highlighting increased Taliban casualties and capture of fighters, NATO's own "State of the Taliban 2012" report indicates that Taliban morale is high and that they are winning over the hearts and minds of many Afghanis.
The United States has the best soldiers, sailors, and Marines fighting in Afghanistan, but they are fighting a war without clear goals or strategies, and backed by a failing economy. The Obama administration is perhaps right to pull out of Afghanistan, but it needs to figure out how to do so more responsibly and effectively.