Afghanistan: How does this end?

Next week the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus, will visit Capitol Hill to tell Congress about our progress there. Judging from this pre-visit story in the New York Times, he’ll offer an upbeat appraisal, no doubt tempered with the usual cautions about how there are still challenges to be overcome, that ...

Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Stephen M. Walt
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

Next week the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus, will visit Capitol Hill to tell Congress about our progress there. Judging from this pre-visit story in the New York Times, he'll offer an upbeat appraisal, no doubt tempered with the usual cautions about how there are still challenges to be overcome, that the mission remains difficult, etc. etc. As I've noted before, this is pretty much what one expects any commander to do in such circumstances, so one should approach his testimony with a certain healthy skepticism.

I do hope the Hill staffers who will be preparing questions for their bosses will also read C.J. Chivers's account of the complexities that continue to bedevil our efforts in Afghanistan. Chivers has clearly been talking to soldiers in the field, and his story paints a less optimistic vision than we are likely to hear next week. Here's the revealing hint that the view from the bottom is different from the view at the top:

Officially, Mr. Obama's Afghan buildup shows signs of success, demonstrating both American military capabilities and the revival of a campaign that had been neglected for years. But in the rank and file, there has been little triumphalism as the administration's plan has crested."

Next week the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus, will visit Capitol Hill to tell Congress about our progress there. Judging from this pre-visit story in the New York Times, he’ll offer an upbeat appraisal, no doubt tempered with the usual cautions about how there are still challenges to be overcome, that the mission remains difficult, etc. etc. As I’ve noted before, this is pretty much what one expects any commander to do in such circumstances, so one should approach his testimony with a certain healthy skepticism.

I do hope the Hill staffers who will be preparing questions for their bosses will also read C.J. Chivers’s account of the complexities that continue to bedevil our efforts in Afghanistan. Chivers has clearly been talking to soldiers in the field, and his story paints a less optimistic vision than we are likely to hear next week. Here’s the revealing hint that the view from the bottom is different from the view at the top:

Officially, Mr. Obama’s Afghan buildup shows signs of success, demonstrating both American military capabilities and the revival of a campaign that had been neglected for years. But in the rank and file, there has been little triumphalism as the administration’s plan has crested."

Chivers also quotes a U.S. colonel (who requested anonymity) as follows:

You can keep trying all different kinds of tactics," said one American colonel outside of this province. "We know how to do that. But if the strategic level isn’t working, you do end up wondering: How much does it matter? And how does this end?"

Needless to say, the problems at the strategic level are quite familiar:

The Taliban and the groups it collaborates with remain deeply rooted; the Afghan military and police remain lackluster and given to widespread drug use; the country’s borders remain porous; Kabul Bank, which processes government salaries, is wormy with fraud, and President Hamid Karzai’s government, by almost all accounts, remains weak, corrupt and erratically led.  And the Pakistani frontier remains a Taliban safe haven."

As for the anonymous colonel’s last question — "How does this end?" — I think the best we can hope for now is that the Obama administration goes in to full spin mode, touting all the progress it has made, and uses that as a justification for a gradual strategic withdrawal. That’s one way to interpret Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’s own remarks about recent U.S. progress, heralding the likelihood that U.S. troop levels will begin to decline this summer. It’s a variation of the old "declare victory and get out" strategy that was once proposed for Vietnam, and if that’s what it takes to end this continued drain on our resources and strategic attention, fine by me.

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University. Twitter: @stephenwalt

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