Last week marked a major inflection point in the war in Afghanistan. NATO decided to suspend joint operations with Afghan forces below the battalion level, while the last of the 30,000 U.S. "surge" troops returned home. After eleven years of conflict, the United States and its allies now stand at a fork in the road. They can continue to press ahead with an increasingly risky advisory effort, where the remaining 68,000 U.S. troops would continue widespread partnering with Afghan forces. Or they can start shifting now to a much-reduced military effort aimed at supporting the Afghan military in combat differently while protecting broader U.S. interests with smaller counter-terror forces.
Starting in the spring of 2009, the United States poured nearly 70,000 additional forces into Afghanistan, tripling its previous troop levels. The "surge" represented the last increments of this growth, capping an effort to counter major escalations of Taliban strength and aggressiveness in the preceding years. Newly arrived U.S. forces moved into areas where few Americans had previously set foot. These included Helmand province in southern Afghanistan, which is a significant poppy growing area but where only 3 percent of the Afghan population lives.
The Taliban largely fell back in the face of this onslaught, but quickly adjusted tactics to emphasize high-profile suicide attacks, ever-larger roadside bombs, assassinations of Afghan officials, and most recently, a surge of insider attacks. These so-called "green on blue" attacks have proven both costly and disruptive to coalition forces, killing more than 50 troops so far this year. Aimed squarely at Western publics, these attacks have provoked outrage in the United States and among its NATO allies.
If popular tolerance for battlefield deaths was tenuous, there is near zero patience with attacks from the very Afghan forces the allies have been working with over the last eleven years. Senator John McCain, not known for wavering in the face of military setbacks, noted last week, "I think all options [should] be considered, including whether we just withdraw early rather than have a continued bloodletting that won't succeed." Although he backed down from that comment the following day, McCain's visceral response signals an important shift among those who have long supported greater U.S. efforts in Afghanistan. Another defense hawk, Republican Congressman C.W. Bill Young, was even more direct when he said, "We're killing kids who don't need to die" and "I think we should remove ourselves from Afghanistan as quickly as we can."
The Obama administration now faces two dramatically different choices. It could resume lower-level partnering after several weeks, using the pause to enhance security measures and set new rules to protect U.S. and other NATO forces. U.S. military leaders in Afghanistan are almost sure to recommend this option, since they are deeply committed to the current approach and have invested years in developing its structural underpinnings. Yet once partnering is resumed, the inevitable next insider attack -- and the next, and the next -- would likely render this option politically untenable and markedly worsen the existing discontent at home and growing concern among troops partnered with Afghans in the field.