None of this means the Talibs will be able to roll into Kabul with the same ease as they did in the 1990s; the Kabul government won't fall as Saigon's did in Vietnam. The Afghan army, it appears, should be able to protect major cities and other critical areas. But the insurgents almost certainly will expand control of rural districts, and they will retain the ability to conduct frequent attacks against government and civilian targets. The foreseeable future will be messy and chaotic. But many Americans may well see it as acceptable. Osama bin Laden is dead. Al-Qaeda is on the ropes. The Taliban leadership has taken a beating.
Could all of that have occurred without a surge? Could the United States have achieved a similarly messy but good-enough outcome without hundreds more dead Americans and thousands more gravely wounded? More than 1,100 U.S. troops have died in Afghanistan since the first troops arrived in Afghanistan in January 2010. Of course, many hundreds of Americans likely would have been killed had Obama held troop levels at the pre-surge level of 68,000.
Surge proponents insist that the influx of troops was essential to reversing the Taliban's momentum and creating enough breathing room to build the Afghan army. But accomplishing those goals did not require large conventional Army and Marine brigades tromping through the desert. Special Operations forces deserve a lot of the credit for the pummeling of the Taliban. Their numbers -- and those of the training force for the Afghan army -- could have been augmented without a full-on surge. All it required was reallocating the mix of troops already on the ground.
Commanders insist that the large surge force was crucial to assembling the necessary intelligence for special operators to conduct their raids. I don't buy it. The vast majority of the night raids conducted in Afghanistan in 2010 and 2011 were based on signals intelligence -- mobile phone calls, text messages, and conversations on walkie-talkies that were vacuumed up by the National Security Agency and the U.S. military eavesdropping aircraft that continuously circled over the country -- not on information provided by villagers who suddenly felt safer because American troops were around. The intelligence analysts who assembled "target packets" -- the material given to Special Operations teams that identified where individual insurgent leaders were hiding -- had a bias against tips from Afghans who walked up to U.S. bases. More often than not, the supposed bad guy was simply a member of a rival tribe or someone who had a dispute with the tipster. It was a lesson the Americans had learned the hard way: Too often, in the early years of the war, U.S. troops had unwittingly been pulled into local conflicts. By relying on phones and radios, they avoided that problem.
So what should the president have done back in 2009? Well, I'm not one of those who think we should have just packed up and left. Had we done that -- or if we do that today -- it likely would condemn Afghans to the hell of a prolonged insurgency or another civil war. When the United States launched the war in 2001, Washington made an implicit promise to the Afghan people: that if they stood with America against the Taliban, we'd give them a shot at a better, freer life. But that didn't require a counterinsurgency strategy and a surge that tired us out.
One of the protagonists in my book, a former State Department officer named Kael Weston who spent seven years in Iraq and Afghanistan -- more than any other American diplomat -- argued that instead of going big or going home, we should have gone long. The president needed to determine how many troops he was willing to commit to Afghanistan for a decade or more, and then he needed to pledge that level of support to the Afghan people. That meant no surge. But Weston was convinced that a smaller but enduring force would be smarter on all fronts: It would appeal to the Afghans, who chafed at the presence of so many foreign soldiers on their soil; it would compel the Afghan army to more quickly assume responsibility for fighting the Taliban and securing the population; it would encourage the Taliban to come to the negotiating table; and it would force the Americans to focus on only the most essential missions instead of grand nation-building projects. Afghanistan, he often told me, is a marathon, not a sprint. The surge was a sprint. And America got winded too quickly.