National Security

We're Winning in Afghanistan

Why hasn't the media noticed?

Last week, a New York Times editorial argued that it is time for U.S. forces to leave Afghanistan -- a process that it said should not take more than a year, a much faster timeline than the president has proposed.

The editorial reflects the growing effort to justify and rationalize our abandonment of Afghanistan, just as we did after the Soviets left. The international community has repeatedly promised the Afghan people that it would not do that again, specifically because we know many Afghans are concerned their country will fall apart when U.S. and international troops leave at the end of 2014. And yet, as the Associated Press reported in August, there is a sense in Afghanistan that history could repeat itself.

When the Soviet army withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, U.S. support to mujahedeen fighters who had been battling the Soviets dried up quickly, and the country sank into civil war as militias and warlords battled for power, devastating Kabul. That was followed by the rise of the Taliban and years of rule under their repressive regime.

Foreign Policy's own coverage has noted a shift in the conversation from fighting into 2015 or sticking around through 2014 to whether the United States even makes it to 2014. Ahmed Rashid, author of Taliban, has noted, "Pundits and politicians, as well as think-tanks and military officers have been full of doom and gloom."

But many of us on the ground don't understand the recent pessimism. As U.S. Marine Maj. Gen. Mark Gurganus, the regional commander for southwestern Afghanistan, told a group of media from Kabul about the negativity of recent press coverage, "When I read them I have to back up and say, are we talking about the same place?" He added: "We are still a province at war, but look at the progress that has been made in Helmand Province over the past three years." Indeed, even the Times editorial acknowledged that "[t]he Taliban has not retaken territory lost to coalition forces."

We are reaching the point in which the misperception being created by the media is undermining our ability to achieve their own definition of success in Afghanistan: denying al Qaeda a safe haven via a strengthened Afghan security force that is capable of taking over lead responsibility in the future.

Have insider attacks and sensational Taliban attacks taken place?

Yes, and we are accountable for that.

But there is something to the comments made by senior officials that the sensational attacks are reflective of a desperate insurgency. If you were a Taliban commander losing an insurgency for the past couple of years since the surge, wouldn't you feel the need to conduct sensational attacks to give the perception your narrative is winning out and to reassure your followers?

If the Taliban had genuinely gained ground or momentum, reporting that creates the perception the insurgency is everywhere and can do everything would be understandable; but harassing attacks by insurgents have not adversely affected our operational planning or the transition.

After the Sept. 14 attack on Camp Bastion, we observed a motivated insurgency in Helmand province planning more attacks to get some momentum going. Approximately 100 Taliban were staging attacks in the districts of Marjah and Nad Ali.

Then something happened that hadn't before: The northern district police chiefs coordinated sweeping clearing operations that killed approximately half of the would-be attackers and demoralized the rest.

The results of the surge -- specifically, the growth of the Afghanistan National Security Forces (ANSF) in both size and capabilities -- has made it possible for the coalition to transition to what we call a Security Force Assistance mode of operations. With this change, the campaign has progressed from one focused on coalition-led operations, to one that supports the development of the Afghan security forces (the intelligence services, the military, and the police), enabling them to conduct independent operations. 

The transition to a Security Force Assistance mode of operations in the southwest began in April, and where transition to the ANSF has taken place in our area of operations, there has been no significant increase in either insurgent or criminal activity. This includes the entire province of Nimroz and 8 of the 14 the districts in Helmand.

In order to strategically defeat the Taliban we need to highlight the successes of the ANSF and reassure the Afghan people that the international community will not abandon them. The 800-pound gorilla in the room is the lack of confidence the Afghan people have in their security forces being able to hold their own after the coalition leaves, and in some cases, it is the security forces themselves that lack the confidence.

The ANSF and the Afghan people don't know just how good their security forces really are -- and will be in the future. Should Afghans see confidence and esprit de corps in the ANSF, we could see something similar to the "Anbar Awakening" in Iraq.

That confidence is starting to build. In the first two weeks of September, insurgents moved in after 1st Battalion, 7th Marines pulled back from areas in the Musa Qala district of Helmand Province. Once the local officials and ANSF perceived this development as a problem, they ordered the area be retaken. Face-to-face and toe-to-toe, the Taliban had to back down, and we saw some bravado emerge from the ANSF that soon carried over to operations in Sangin.

This past week all of the casualties for our area of operations were members of the ANSF. Don't underestimate ANSF's bravery or their willingness to put their lives on the line for their country because they are doing it every single day. They are not afraid of the Taliban, and they move quickly to the sound of the gun.

Majid Saeedi/Getty Images


Slippery Mitt Evades KO

Will Romney's rope-a-dope strategy on foreign policy actually work?

Mitt Romney is a candidate of protean principles. When his positions on issues become inconvenient, he simply throws them overboard, sometimes even denying he took them in the first place. So it was in Monday night's foreign policy debate, when the ferocious Rottweiler of the previous two debates unexpectedly morphed into "Me-Too Mitt."

It was a tactically shrewd performance that made a virtue of necessity. Romney clearly hasn't mastered the complexities of defense and security policy, and at several points last night seemed uncomfortably out of his depth. Rather than mount a vigorous challenge to Barack Obama's conduct of U.S. foreign policy, Romney dropped previous lines of attack and wound up agreeing with the president's handling of conflicts in Afghanistan, Syria, and even Iran.

By stressing continuity rather than radical change in U.S. foreign policy, Romney sought to reassure voters that he is ready to take over as commander in chief. Although post-debate insta-polls showed that he "lost" the debate, he probably achieved this crucial goal. And the appearance of a kinder, gentler Romney blunted Obama's aggressive attempts to portray him as a "reckless" throwback to the bellicose policies of George W. Bush.

All this, however, came at a cost. By softening if not abandoning earlier critiques of Obama's policies, Romney yet again came off as insincere and opportunistic, and played into Obama's repeated charge that he is "all over the map" on foreign policy. Romney's agreeableness also undercut the force of his general argument that Obama has not delivered strong U.S. global leadership. Hardcore Republican partisans -- not to mention Romney's neocon advisors -- can't be happy with their nominee's decision to blur rather than sharpen contrasts with Obama.

Last night, for example, Romney emphatically agreed with Obama's plan to bring U.S. troops home from Afghanistan by 2014. He even allowed that Obama's "surge" of more troops into the country had worked. Left unsaid was his oft-repeated accusation -- leveled as recently as his Oct. 8 foreign policy address at the Virginia Military Institute -- that Obama's commitment to a "politically timed retreat" threatens to abandon Afghans to Taliban terrorism and chaos.

Likewise, Romney abandoned, like a bad business investment, his attempt to turn the fatal attack on America's consulate in Libya into a parable of weak and deceptive presidential leadership. His erroneous claim that it had taken Obama weeks to acknowledge that Islamist terrorists were behind the assault provoked the president's most effective moment in the second debate, as well as a correction from moderator Candy Crowley that made Romney look amateurish.

Instead, Romney quite surprisingly used the Libya question to attack Obama from the left. Saying "we can't kill our way out" of our terrorism problem, the GOP nominee said the administration lacks a comprehensive anti-terror strategy that helps Muslim countries counter violent extremism within their midst. In fact, Romney had an excellent point, but he floundered in trying to articulate how a strategy of counter-radicalization might work. Instead, he kept insinuating that Obama is somehow to blame for the "tumult" in the Middle East.

While making a persuasive case that the fall of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad is in America's strategic interest, Romney was unable to identify any serious difference with Obama's response to the uprising. He was equally adamant that U.S. military forces shouldn't get involved, and that Washington should be wary about arming the wrong people -- namely Sunni Salafists -- in the Syrian resistance.

Romney probably did score a point on Iran, which he said is "four years closer to nuclear weapons" than when Obama took office. Apart from promising to indict Iran's president for incitement to genocide -- an idea hardly likely to make Tehran more tractable on nuclear enrichment or anything else -- he offered no real change in policy. Instead, he acknowledged that the "crippling sanctions" orchestrated by the administration were working, and promised vaguely to tighten them.

Romney did, of course, take a few of his usual jabs at the president, accusing him of being an inconstant friend of Israel, of having undertake an "apology tour" in the Middle East, cutting defense spending too much, and letting China get away with murder on trade. But Obama effectively parried these blows in what was a thoroughly dominating performance.

Perhaps too dominating. Obama was overly aggressive at times, cross-examining Romney on his policy shifts and lapsing into sarcasm when his opponent made a reasonable point about the size of the U.S. Navy. No doubt the president showed off his superior sophistication and grasp of complex policy issues, but probably at some cost to his likeability.

The debate was a win for the president, if a frustrating one. He landed blow after blow, but couldn't manage any knockdowns of the slippery, shape-shifting Romney.