After One Year, Obama Surge in Afghanistan Has Mixed Results and Mixed Future


December 20, 2010

A leader is a man who can adapt principles to circumstances. General George S. Patton

The Obama administration’s new “Afghanistan-Pakistan Annual Review” is remarkably optimistic when compared to the conditions on the ground.

In his speech at West Point Academy on December 1, 2009, President Obama had defined the situation in Afghanistan quite dramatically: “What’s at stake,” Mr. Obama had said, “is not simply a test of NATO’s credibility – what’s at stake is the security of our allies, and the common security of the entire world.” To that end, the American president outlined the three core elements of his “surge”: “a military effort to create the conditions for a transition; a civilian surge that reinforces positive action; and an effective partnership with Pakistan.”

The Obama administration’s new report claims that “the momentum achieved by the Taliban in recent years has been arrested in much of the country and reversed in some key areas,” admitting, however, that “these gains remain fragile and reversible.”

Indeed, the “Obama surge” in Afghanistan has been a mixture of success and failure. The additional 30,000 troops sent in 2010 and adopting new tactics have given Afghan and international forces a fresh respite. Actually securing Afghanistan, however, has remained an elusive accomplishment: Insurgent attacks are on an all-time high; failure to resolve the allegations of fraud in last September’s parliamentary elections is shaking the already unstable foundation’s of Afghan democracy; and, in the aftermath of last summer’s floods, Islamabad’s already limited will to clamp down on Taliban strongholds within Pakistan has ground to a halt.

We can reach several conclusions from Mr. Obama’s stance on Afghanistan. First of all, the people of Afghanistan and their government will have to assume greater responsibility for their security – and a lot sooner than the target date of late 2014. America has no interest in fighting an endless war in Afghanistan.

More important, we need to see that Afghan security forces, the United States, and NATO allies are fighting more than an organization or a network of myriad groups – they’re actually fighting decades of misery borne out of foreign meddling, occupation, and underdevelopment. Virtually every Afghan official and private citizen will tell you that “90%” of Taliban militants join the group out of economic deprivation and lack of a “meaningful future.” Thus, without building a viable economic order in Afghanistan, all security gains will remain reversible.

The problem is that America’s economic prospects also look bleak. As the veteran American journalist Leslie Gelb pointed out last week, “continuing the war [in Afghanistan] tears at our own nation’s very vitals. How on earth can the [Obama] administration justify spending billions to build roads, schools, and hospitals in Afghanistan when America’s physical and intellectual infrastructure is simply collapsing?” “Of course, I feel for the Afghans;” Mr. Gelb continued, “but I feel far, far more for Americans.”

When Mr. Obama runs for re-election in 2012, he will face just that criticism – from friend and foe – that he has to focus on “America first.” As such, he will probably begin a substantial withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan next summer in order to strengthen his hand at home. It will be wise for Afghan and international leaders to take note of that fact.

Barın Kayaoğlu is a Ph.D. candidate in history at The University of Virginia. He welcomes all comments, questions, and exchanges. To contact him, click here.

You can also follow him on Twitter (@barinkayaoglu) and Facebook (BarınKayaoğ

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