Could “Success” in Afghanistan Be Worse Than Failure?
July 12, 2011, Washington, D.C. — In triumphant testimony before a joint committee of Congress in which he was greeted on both sides of the aisle as a conquering hero, Gen. David Petraeus announced the withdrawal this month of the first 1,000 American troops from Afghanistan. “This is the beginning of the pledge the president made to the American people to draw down the surge troops sent in since 2009,” he said, adding, “and yet let me emphasize, as I did when I took this job, that our commitment to the Afghan government and people is an enduring one.”
Last July, when Gen. Petraeus replaced the discredited Gen. Stanley McChrystal as Afghan war commander, he was hailed as an “American hero” by Senator John McCain, as “the most talented officer of his generation” by the New Yorker’s George Packer, and as “the nation’s premier warrior-diplomat” by Karen DeYoung and Craig Whitlock of the Washington Post — typical of the comments of both Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives at the time. Petraeus then promised that the United States was in Afghanistan “to win.”
In the year since, the Taliban insurgency has been blunted and “a tipping point has been reached,” says a senior U.S. military official with the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, who could speak only on the condition of anonymity, in keeping with the policy of his organization. By every available measure — IEDs or roadside bombs, suicide attacks, Taliban assassinations of local officials, allied casualties, and Afghan civilian casualties — the intensity of the insurgency has weakened significantly. The Afghan military and police, though not capable of taking the lead in the fighting in their own country, have been noticeably strengthened by American and NATO training missions. President Hamid Karzai’s government, still considered weak and corrupt, has succeeded in putting an Afghan face on the war.
Democratic critics of Gen. Petraeus, and of President Obama’s surge strategy, were notably quiet this week as the general toured the capital’s power hotspots from John Podesta’s Center for American Progress to the American Enterprise Institute, while being feted as the hero of the moment and a potential presidential candidate in 2016. As in 2007, when he was appointed to oversee George W. Bush’s surge in Iraq after the critics said it couldn’t be done, the impressive charts the general brought to his congressional testimony once again vividly indicated otherwise. The situation in Afghanistan has undergone an Iraq-like change since the nadir of July 2010 when critics and proponents alike agreed that the nine-year-old war was foundering, the counterinsurgency strategy failing, and polling in the U.S. highlighted the war’s increasing unpopularity.