So it’s happened. Despite protests from the Pentagon, Obama has announced his intention of making the surge of two years ago truly a surge, and to draw down 33,000 US troops from Afghanistan by September next year.
The current Afghan President Hamid Karzai has just welcomed the news.
“The Afghan people’s trust in the Afghan army and police is growing every day and preservation of this land is the job of Afghans…. I welcome the decision of the US president today on pulling out [some of] … its troops from Afghanistan and I consider this a right decision for the interest of both countries.”
The news has created an unusual consensus and been welcome by the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, as well as NATO, and the governments in London, Paris and Berlin.
But what says the Moose to this? I know many here distressed by the announcement of the surge two years ago. Has it worked? Has it created some stability for the ANA to take over the destabilised provinces such as Helmand. Or is it a capitulation to a determined and increasingly dug-in foe?
For my own part, having talked extensively with some British commanders who fought in Helmand, this seems to me to be a strategic retreat. The Taliban – in truth a motley assemblage of different warlords, ethnic groups and economic interests – were never going to be simply defeated militarily in their own homeland. Only development, security and education would provide an alternative for the young Afghan men who could earn hundreds of dollars a month placing IED’s or shooting at ISAF troops.
One Marine Colonel I spoke to recently, who initially two years ago, who thought the Taliban were retreating in Helmand due to the determination of NATO troops to protect local civilians and allow economic development to flourish, now thinks ISAF was destined to fail. For local warlords, to whom loss of life is part of the historic game, the West was always going to capitulate and return home if blood cost got too high.
On the other hand, there are new forces afoot in Afghanistan. Kabul itself has trebled in size, commerce and infrastructure since 2001. Though there will be a long hard slog to bring similar levels of development to far flung provinces, the ultimate hope must be that thought the Afghan insurgents could never be easily militarily defeated, time may see them and their children co-opted into more productive activities beyond Opium production or mercenary gunmen.
To me this isn’t a defeat like Vietnam, but a much more equivocal moment. And let’s remember, forty years on, where Vietnam is now.