President Obama is sure to tout the fall of Ramadi to Iraqi ground forces and American air power as a sign that his anti-ISIS strategy is working. But ISIS remains far from defeated — it is largely secure in its Syria redoubts and still holds large swathes of Iraq. And, even as ISIS is falling back a bit in Iraq, other radical Islamic groups are gaining ground elsewhere.
Afghanistan is a case in point. The Washington Post reports: “With control of — or a significant presence in — roughly 30 percent of districts across the nation, according to Western and Afghan officials, the Taliban now holds more territory than in any year since 2001, when the puritanical Islamists were ousted from power after the 9/11 attacks.”
The New York Times reports that refugees from other parts of Helmand have been fleeing the Taliban advance to take refuge in the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah, but they are fearful that Lashkar Gah too soon will fall.
What accounts for the rapid deterioration of the situation in Afghanistan? The proximate causes are the Afghan government’s failure to deliver more effective and less corrupt governance, and the Pakistan government’s continuing support for the Taliban. But those are constants: They were true from 2010 to 2012, when the Taliban was losing ground, and they are true today. What has changed is the level of U.S. commitment.
President Obama, to his credit, roughly tripled U.S. forces in Afghanistan to 100,000 in 2010. But then he started bringing the troops home almost as soon as they had arrived, in keeping with the artificial, self-defeating, politically-motivated timeline he had imposed at the start of the surge. Today, there are only 10,000 U.S. troops left in Afghanistan and they operate under restrictive rules of engagement that make it extremely difficult for them to deliver air support and other vital help that Afghan forces need.
Even Obama has recognized that the situation is so serious that he has had to scrap his original design to cut U.S. forces levels to only 5,000 this year and to remove them altogether by early 2017. But he refuses to ponder whether there might already be too few U.S. troops in Afghanistan even though all signs suggest that the U.S. needs to increase its efforts to beat back the Taliban. In all likelihood, it is probably necessary to at least double the current U.S. commitment.
This is the point in the article when some readers will wonder in exasperation whether it is ever possible to withdraw forces from a counterinsurgency fight or whether winning such a war requires a commitment to perpetual war? And if that is what it takes, doesn’t that mean that the U.S. can never win any counterinsurgency fight, ever?
A long-term commitment is necessary — but not necessarily a commitment that requires taking large amounts of risk and suffering the concomitant casualties. U.S. forces in Iraq had largely won the battle by the time they were withdrawn in 2011, four years after the start of the “surge” under President Bush. They remained behind primarily in a peacekeeping, rather than a warfighting, role. But Obama’s decision to pull them out removed the glue holding together Iraq’s fragile polity. The result was the rise of Shiite sectarianism and its opposite number — Sunni extremism, as represented by ISIS. If the U.S. troops had remained behind (which was eminently possible if Obama had shown as much dedication as Bush had shown toward negotiating a Status of Forces Agreement), the likely result would have been a “victory”: i.e., an Iraq that was a slowly emerging democracy, with neither the Iranian-backed Shiite militias nor Sunni radicals wielding inordinate influence.
A similar victory was within reach in Afghanistan. If Obama had only gone more slowly in ending the surge, if he had not been so quick to draw down, Afghan forces could have preserved more of the gains won by U.S. troops and Helmand Province would not now be in danger of falling. U.S. public opinion did not dictate the pace of withdrawal; the public would be as much (or as little) opposed to a continuing U.S. role in Afghanistan if we had 25,000 troops there now as with our current 10,000. The level of commitment was entirely at Obama’s discretion, and he made a spectacularly bad choice. The result: One theater in the greater war against terrorism (Afghanistan) is suffering serious setbacks even as U.S. air power helps to secure a small victory in another theater (Iraq).