The Magazine

Retreater in Chief

Oct 1, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 03 • By MAX BOOT
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Things are getting ugly in Afghanistan. Taliban insurgents somehow managed to penetrate the coalition’s main base in Helmand Province, Camp Bastion, and blow up six Marine Corps Harrier jump jets and damage two others, making this the greatest single-day loss of American warplanes since the Vietnam war. (The Harrier squadron commander, Lt. Col. Christopher Raible, was killed in the attack.) Another Taliban suicide bomber struck in Kabul, killing a dozen people, including contract workers for the U.S. embassy. Oh, and there have been more “green on blue” killings, bringing to 51 (and counting) the number of coalition troops killed this year by Afghan security personnel.

Tanks

These attacks have led the U.S. Special Forces to suspend training of new recruits for the Afghan Local Police, a critical force designed to supplement the regular police and army, and more recently the NATO command to suspend at least temporarily joint operations with the Afghans below the battalion level. The most common and important security operations are carried out in small units—squads, platoons, and companies, not battalions or brigades. If the ban persists, it will cripple the effort of U.S. forces to improve the combat performance of their Afghan counterparts.

Amid such serious setbacks, what do we get from the administration? Robotic statements from White House press secretary Jay Carney that the timeline for withdrawing personnel—now, with the surge completed just days ago, numbering 68,000 U.S. troops, down from a wartime high of 100,000—remains unaffected. And from Defense Secretary Leon Panetta we hear that the recent Taliban attacks are insignificant—merely the “last gasp” of a defeated insurgency. It is hard to take seriously such blithe assurances, which recall the dark days of both the Vietnam and Iraq wars when our leaders told us that we should not believe the evidence of our own eyes—that, despite all signs to the contrary, there was light at the end of the tunnel.

This is not to suggest by any stretch of the imagination that things are as bad in Afghanistan as they were in Vietnam in 1967 or in Iraq in 2007. The overall level of violence is much lower, and there has been demonstrable progress as a result of President Obama’s surge. Coalition troops have managed to clear the Taliban out of many of their sanctuaries in Helmand and Kandahar Provinces. The buildup of the Afghan security forces, which are now 350,000 strong, is proceeding despite the dangers posed by insider attack. There have even been some scattered successes in improving the delivery of local services in districts that have been major centers of coalition activity.

But let’s not kid ourselves. The Taliban (and related groups, such as the even-more-fanatical Haqqani network), are far from defeated. They remain secure in their Pakistan sanctuaries, which a decade’s worth of American efforts have done nothing to dislodge. The Taliban even maintain many sanctuaries within Afghanistan itself, particularly in eastern Afghanistan, where the coalition has never had enough troops to do the kind of “clear, hold, and build” operations that have been conducted in the south. And the state of Afghan governance remains poor, with outrageously corrupt and abusive officials—the greatest recruiting agents the Taliban could possibly have—still in office despite half-hearted American efforts to root them out.

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