The U.S. troop surge in Afghanistan ended last week. You'd be forgiven if you didn't notice. There was no proclamation of success from the White House, no fanfare at the Pentagon, no public expression of gratitude from Afghan President Hamid Karzai. It fell to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who was traveling in New Zealand, to announce that the last of the 33,000 surge troops, dispatched by President Obama in late 2009 at the behest of his military commanders, had left Afghanistan.
In stating that U.S. troop levels had dropped to 68,000, Panetta told reporters traveling with him that "this is an opportunity to recognize that the surge did accomplish its objectives." A few days earlier, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, stated that the surge was "an effort that was worth the cost."
Are they right? In my new book, Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan, I explore what really happened over there -- and in Washington -- after Obama decided to surge. The real story of the surge cannot be reduced down to a soundbite. It exacted a significant cost on the United States -- in lives, limbs, and dollars. Sure, the surge did have some positive impacts: The Taliban were pushed out of large stretches of southern Afghanistan, the influx of U.S. resources accelerated the development of the Afghan security forces, and the billions that were poured into the country in the name of reconstruction did provide short-term employment to thousands of young men. But did the surge really achieve its objectives? And were the gains worth the cost?
The now-retired commanders who pressed Obama to surge in 2009 -- Gen. Stanley McChrystal, Gen. David Petraeus, and Adm. Mike Mullen -- all insisted at the time that more troops, coupled with a protect-the-population counterinsurgency strategy, would have a good chance of turning around a failing war. They believed a surge had saved Iraq, despite strong evidence that the reasons for the improvements in security there were far more complex. In Afghanistan, they argued, the additional troops would allow the military to protect key parts of the south from Taliban advances; once that mission was completed, they would swing east to pacify areas around Kabul. The surge force also would provide a valuable opportunity to expand the Afghan army, disburse reconstruction assistance and create -- in conjunction with the State Department -- local governments in places were there had been very little government influence, reasoning that generating Afghan-led security and an indigenous civil administration would convince people to stop supporting the insurgency.
All of this nation-building was intended to accomplish a very narrow goal set by Obama: "To disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda" in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. It did not matter much to the generals that most of al Qaeda's remaining core was in Pakistan, where it could -- and would -- be targeted with drones. The commanders insisted that they needed to beat back the Taliban because, if they returned to power, they would once again be able to provide sanctuary to al Qaeda operatives.
For the surge and its accompanying countersurgency strategy to prevail in Afghanistan, four main things needed to occur: The Afghan government had to be a willing partner, the Pakistani government had to crack down on insurgent sanctuaries on its soil, the Afghan army had to be ready and willing to assume control of areas that had been cleared of insurgents by American troops, and the Americans had to be willing to commit troops and money for years on end.
Did all of that happen? Let's examine them one by one:
1. Karzai never agreed with America's war strategy. U.S. officers and diplomats argue that tribal rivalries, an inequitable distribution of power at the local level, and the government's failure to provide even the most basic services are all factors pushing many Afghans into the Taliban's arms. Back in 2009 and 2010, they believed the remedy was a comprehensive counterinsurgency campaign. But in Karzai's eyes, the principal problem was and still is the infiltration of militants from Pakistan -- not the corruption and malfeasance of his government -- and he has long wanted U.S. and NATO forces to focus on the border. By mucking around in the districts of Kandahar and Helmand, the United States and its coalition partners were disrupting what he believed was a natural system of self-regulating Pashtun governance. Through all of his flare-ups, Karzai "is sending us a message," a senior U.S. military official told me. "And that message is 'I don't believe in counterinsurgency.'"