There is an old saying in Afghanistan, which seems to specialize in them. "Westerners have the watches; Afghans have the time."
The United States is anxiously eyeing the clock yet again as it marks the 10th anniversary of our war in Afghanistan — the longest conflict in American history.
Yet victory, as classically defined, remains elusive.
In the decade since then-President George W. Bush launched "Operation Enduring Freedom," — the nation's response to the 9/11 attacks — the Taliban-led government in Kabul, al-Qaida's host, was ousted.
Since then, America has lost nearly 1,800 soldiers and sustained almost 14,000 injuries in Afghanistan. The conflict has cost roughly $400 billion in a state whose annual gross domestic product totals some $20 billion, much of that from trade in weapons and illicit drugs. And the Congressional Research Service estimates that the conflict is costing America about $9 billion a month.
Senior U.S. military officials and Afghan experts crow that the Taliban, which had regrouped and re-established their influence in much of the country after Washington began focusing on Iraq in 2003, have finally been expelled from their longtime strongholds in eastern and southern Afghanistan, and even from Kandahar.
But squeezed out of their traditional turf since their formation in the 1990's, the Taliban are now popping up in areas where they had difficulty operating before. In June, Taliban fighters staged a Mumbai-style assault that lasted almost 20 hours at the Inter-Continental in Kabul, where many foreigners stay.
In September, the Taliban delivered yet another body blow to the corrupt government of President Hamid Karzai when a suicide bomber killed former Afghan president Burhanuddin Rabbani, his ostensible "peace envoy" to the Taliban. The sputtering efforts to launch "peace talks" were promptly suspended.
In June, President Barack Obama, claiming de facto victory over the Taliban, announced that he was withdrawing the 32,000-plus surge forces he had sent there to bolster the war effort after eight months of excruciating national security navel-gazing. It was time, he asserted, "to focus on nation-building here at home" (where presumably the odds of success are better)
At the same time, he redefined both the conflict and the strategy underlying America's presence in that country. America's goal, he said, was never "nation-building" in Afghanistan per se, but rather, denying al-Qaida a safe haven.
It took a fellow Democrat, Jessica Tuchman Mathews, the president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, to point out the irony of Mr. Obama's drawdown of the forces he had added and his redefinition of America's goals and strategy in Afghanistan. The shift had brought America back "nearly full circle to the limited 'no boots on the ground/special forces/air power approach'" pursued by former President George W. Bush in 2002-03, she argued.
Not so, says Michael O'Hanlon, of the Brookings Institution and an expert on Afghanistan. Though Obama is withdrawing the 32,000 "surge" forces about six months earlier than initially anticipated, O'Hanlon argues that Obama has not abandoned the broader counter-insurgency strategy, or COIN, that he embraced when he decided to fulfill a campaign pledge and bolster the Afghan effort.
The U.S. goal in Afghanistan is still to build up the Afghan police and army to some 350,000, a combined force level that he says should enable them to maintain stability in the country when American and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces withdraw.
Moreover, he notes, the U.S. will still have 68,000 forces left in Afghanistan — and almost 100,000 with NATO forces — through the end of the Obama administration's first term in office, and perhaps through the end of the fighting season of 2013 as well.
Nor has Obama abandoned the broader COIN strategy of stabilizing the country and building up local troop and political capacity so that an Afghan government can defend itself against the Taliban once the U.S. and NATO forces leave. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta's comments do not suggest that "we call the whole thing a failure and go back to fighting this war exclusively with drones," O'Hanlon says.
For one thing, he argues, such a strategy, initially favored by Vice President Joe Biden, would leave America without sufficient intelligence information from Afghans to target American Predators and drones. "Our intelligence would dry up without a certain force level on the ground," he says.
Reducing America's troop presence in Afghanistan, O'Hanlon argues, "still leaves Obama with twice the forces on the ground there as when he was inaugurated."
And that, say critics like Ann Marlowe, is precisely the problem. She and others say that the hopelessly corrupt government of Hamid Karzai will never be able to ensure security and that America should not only withdraw its forces faster, but adopt a far narrower set of goals for the country.
Writing in the Daily Beast last June, Marlowe argued that there was a tight correlation between the number of IEDs being planted in Afghanistan and the presence of American forces. As American forces were surging in the country, she wrote, Afghan insurgents in 2010 planted 14,661 IEDs, a 62 percent increase over 2009's 7,228, which was a 120 percent increase over 2008."
In sum, she argues, "More troops means more IEDs, period," not only because more troops attracted "more of the seemingly infinite supply of young Pakistani and Afghan men to the insurgent cause," but because they made Afghanistan more dangerous, "which gives the Taliban greater appeal with their promise of order. " Afghanistan, she concludes, "was far safer and less corrupt with 10,000 Americans than it is now with 100,000."
So the president's carefully calibrated strategy of splitting the difference in Afghanistan seems to be pleasing no one. Most die-hard "COINistas," unlike O'Hanlon, who champions that strategy, argue that the administration is undermining a potentially winning course by denying the U.S. military the full resources it needs to make America's stabilizing presence throughout the country felt.
Those opposed to America's commitment there, like Marlowe, argue that the president is throwing good money after bad, and worse, needlessly sacrificing American military lives, by continuing to pursue obtainable goals in Afghanistan.
In reaching for an elusive consensus, as he has done so often, Obama leaves himself politically exposed, as day by day, opposition to his war in Afghanistan among both the left and the right grows.