Afghanistan: All over bar the shouting… and dying

Following Obama's troop withdrawal announcemnt, a look at the Obama surge’s impact on the strategic situation in Afghanistan and what the end game may look like.

Irishman Patrick Bury served in Afghanistan in the British army. A memoir of his experiences, “Callsign Hades”, has just been published in paperback. He currently works for NATO as a researcher on Afghanistan. The views expressed here are his own.

President Obama’s decision last night to begin withdrawing U.S troops from Afghanistan marks the beginning of the end of the surge he ordered 18 months ago. With America’s longest war now in its 11th year, military and civilian casualties still rising, and the war costing the US more than $10 billion a month, this article outlines the Obama surge’s impact on the strategic situation in Afghanistan and what the end game in Afghanistan may look like.


President Obama’s decision to withdraw 10,000 troops from Afghanistan by the end of the year, and a further 23,000 by September 2012, effectively marks the end of the surge he announced in December 2009.

Eighteen months on, the surge has delivered operational successes where troops have been concentrated in the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar, but it has failed to deliver the strategic, and most importantly, political gains Obama hoped for when he tied his presidency to the war in Afghanistan.

Leon Trotsky once remarked:

“…insurrection is an art, and like all arts has its own laws.”

When President Obama announced the surge, he was acting on the advice of his military chiefs, who had asked for 40,000 troops to implement a comprehensive counter-insurgency (COIN) strategy centered on protecting the Afghan population. Obama gave them 30,000, choosing the COIN approach over the more limited counter- terror approach advocated as more realistic by Vice-President Biden and many others.

That such a COIN “strategy” could work was based largely on the fact that it had in Iraq, yet COIN itself was never, and never will be, a strategy in itself. It is merely the military part of an overall strategy. Yet in Afghanistan, in the absence of coherent grand strategy, COIN has become the strategy as the International Security and Assistance Force (ISAF) mission crept further and further toward comprehensive nation building.

Furthermore, as Trotsky outlined, the Afghan insurrection has laws of its own, quite apart from those of Iraq, which, combined with Afghanistan’s political, economic and social landscape, have meant that from the outset such a strategy had far less chance of success than in Iraq.

With Obama now signaling the end of the surge, he is acknowledging these factors are insurmountable within a pragmatic political timeframe. The evidence of this is obvious for those who care to look.

In a recently released UN report, Afghan civilian casualties in May totalled 368, the highest since records began in 2007 and effectively the highest since the war began in 2001. Military casualties have also soared with the surge, further undermining public support.

Also this month, the conclusion of a two-year Senate Foreign Relations Committee inquiry stated that the impact of the billions of dollars of US development aid was questionable and in many cases had aided the insurgency. At present, military spending and development aid account for 97 per cent of country’s gross domestic product, a figure that shows just how unsustainable the whole nation building project is.

And the fact that the inquiry questioned the very efficacy of using aid as a stabilisation tool over the long run has serious implications for the continued funding of an Afghan COIN/ nation building approach that is draining American coffers rapidly.

But the most significant issue that has eroded the political and public support for the war is the killing of Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan last month. There is no avoiding the fact that Al Qaeda was the reason ISAF went into Afghanistan. Now that their leader is dead and the terror network’s members number less than 100 in the country, it is very hard to explain to Americans and Europeans alike why they should fund, and their soldiers should die for, a nation building project in Afghanistan.

Obama realises this, as does prime minister Cameron and President Sarkozy, who have both announced their own timetables for withdrawal. Their Afghanistan adventure, it seems, is all over, bar the shouting.

Indeed, Bin Laden’s assassination has shown Afghanistan up for what it has been for years: a sideshow; Pakistan, its nuclear arsenal and its large population are now the obvious strategic prize China and the US will compete for. As the Afghan Security Forces increase in quantity – and at a slower pace in quality – fewer Americans and Europeans will be needed to stop the Taliban re-taking Kabul by force. Political reintegration processes may yet help stabilise the country. But, ultimately, it is all about Pakistan now.

That is one of the main reasons why America will look to keep military bases in Afghanistan after the transition to Afghan security forces in 2014 – and that is why they will probably keep about 25,000 troops in the country in an advisory role after that date too.

A military presence in the centre of Asia, close to both Pakistan and China, has too much strategic potential to be squandered by a complete drawdown of forces. Moreover, these troops will be ready to conduct counter-terror operations in the Af/Pak border regions, finally confirming that the counter-terror strategy was the most viable all along.

Such a 360-degree reversal of policy is tragic for the Afghan civilians and ISAF men and women who died during the surge. And for those still on the frontline in Afghanistan, whilst the shouting continues, there is much dying to be avoided in the meantime…

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