The U.S. troop surge in Afghanistan ended last week. You'd be forgiven if you didn't notice. There was no proclamation of success from the White House, no fanfare at the Pentagon, no public expression of gratitude from Afghan President Hamid Karzai. It fell to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who was traveling in New Zealand, to announce that the last of the 33,000 surge troops, dispatched by President Obama in late 2009 at the behest of his military commanders, had left Afghanistan.
In stating that U.S. troop levels had dropped to 68,000, Panetta told reporters traveling with him that “this is an opportunity to recognize that the surge did accomplish its objectives.” A few days earlier, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, stated that the surge was “an effort that was worth the cost.”
Are they right? In my new book, “Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan,” I explore what really happened over there — and in Washington — after Obama decided to surge. The real story of the surge cannot be reduced down to a soundbite. It exacted a significant cost on the United States — in lives, limbs and dollars. Sure, the surge did have some positive impacts: The Taliban were pushed out of large stretches of southern Afghanistan, the influx of U.S. resources accelerated the development of the Afghan security forces, and the billions that were poured into the country in the name of reconstruction did provide short-term employment to thousands of young men. But did the surge really achieve its objectives? And were the gains worth the cost?
The now-retired commanders who pressed Obama to surge in 2009 — Gen. Stanley McChrystal, Gen. David Petraeus and Adm. Mike Mullen — all insisted at the time that more troops, coupled with a protect-the-population counterinsurgency strategy, would have a good chance of turning around a failing war. They believed a surge had saved Iraq, despite strong evidence that the reasons for the improvements in security there were far more complex. In Afghanistan, they argued, the additional troops would allow the military to protect key parts of the south from Taliban advances; once that mission was completed, they would swing east to pacify areas around Kabul. The surge force also would provide a valuable opportunity to expand the Afghan army, disburse reconstruction assistance and create — in conjunction with the State Department — local governments in places were there had been very little government influence, reasoning that generating Afghan-led security and an indigenous civil administration would convince people to stop supporting the insurgency.
All of this nation-building was intended to accomplish a very narrow goal set by Obama: “To disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaida” in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. It did not matter much to the generals that most of al Qaida's remaining core was in Pakistan, where it could — and would — be targeted with drones. The commanders insisted that they needed to beat back the Taliban because, if they returned to power, they would once again be able to provide sanctuary to al Qaida operatives.
For the surge and its accompanying countersurgency strategy to prevail in Afghanistan, four main things needed to occur: The Afghan government had to be a willing partner, the Pakistani government had to crack down on insurgent sanctuaries on its soil, the Afghan army had to be ready and willing to assume control of areas that had been cleared of insurgents by American troops, and the Americans had to be willing to commit troops and money for years on end.
Did all of that happen? Let's examine them one by one:
1. Karzai never agreed with America's war strategy. U.S. officers and diplomats argue that tribal rivalries, an inequitable distribution of power at the local level, and the government's failure to provide even the most basic services are all factors pushing many Afghans into the Taliban's arms. Back in 2009 and 2010, they believed the remedy was a comprehensive counterinsurgency campaign. But in Karzai's eyes, the principal problem was and still is the infiltration of militants from Pakistan — not the corruption and malfeasance of his government — and he has long wanted U.S. and NATO forces to focus on the border. By mucking around in the districts of Kandahar and Helmand, the United States and its coalition partners were disrupting what he believed was a natural system of self-regulating Pashtun governance. Through all of his flare-ups, Karzai “is sending us a message,” a senior U.S. military official told me. “And that message is ‘I don't believe in counterinsurgency.’”
2. Pakistan failed to meaningfully pursue Afghan Taliban. After the Taliban leadership relocated to Pakistan in late 2001, they were provided safe harbor by Pakistan's spy service, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) directorate. Talibs were allowed to meet and reorganize and even reestablish networks inside Afghanistan, but the Pakistani spies initially refrained from giving them overt assistance. Although ISI officials regularly met with a handful of senior Talib mullahs, Taliban commanders had to raise their own capital from drug trafficking and foreign donations, and they had to acquire their own munitions, which wasn't all that difficult in Pakistan. But in mid-2009, as American surge forces began flooding into southern Afghanistan, the ISI adopted a far more hands-on strategy. Concerned that U.S. gains on the battlefield would hobble the Afghan insurgency, ISI spymasters began interacting with far more Taliban commanders, often providing them arms and intelligence via civilian intermediaries. According to one assessment, at least half of all insurgent commanders were working closely with ISI operatives by the spring of 2011.
3. Afghan soldiers decided to hang back and let the Americans do the fighting. Instead of compelling Afghan soldiers into action, the surge sent the opposite message. What was supposed to be a kick in the pants — or at least a golden opportunity to work in tandem with the Americans — turned into a crutch. And that doesn't even take into account the recent spike in “green-on-blue” attacks; they are due, in part, to infiltration of the security forces by the Taliban, which accelerated during the rushed effort to expand the Afghan army.
4. The American people balked at the price tag. It costs $1 million to keep one American service member in Afghanistan for a year. That meant the annual bill for the war last year was about $100 billion. The surge also exhausted American patience, coming when the war was already in its eighth year. Even though many Americans shared the president's view that Afghanistan was a “war of necessity,” only a slim majority of Americans supported his decision to send more troops. Popular support is essential for any drawn-out campaign involving tens of thousands of troops, hundreds of monthly casualties, and almost-daily fatalities. Had all the other factors played out differently — had Karzai been a true partner, had the Pakistanis taken meaningful action against the Taliban, and had the U.S. economy not gone into reverse — then perhaps the public could have rallied around such a large war effort. But when all those indicators pointed down, public opinion soon followed. Now, even a majority of Republicans believe the war is no longer worth fighting.
Still, despite all the misguided assumptions U.S. commanders held going into the surge, U.S. and NATO troops have made remarkable progress in the past three years. Parts of southern Afghanistan that were once teeming with insurgents are now largely peaceful. Schools have reopened, as have bazaars. People in some of those places are living as close to a normal life as possible. But Afghanistan as a whole is not fully secure. Eastern parts of the country are still in the grip of the Haqqani network, a Taliban faction that Mullen has called a “veritable arm” of the ISI. And in the south, a critical question lingers: Will the Afghans — the government, the army and the police force — have the will and the ability to take the baton from American troops? Will the Afghans sustain the gains? Will all of the blood and treasure the United States has expended have been worth it? Or will Afghanistan slip back to chaos?
None of this means the Talibs will be able to roll into Kabul with the same ease as they did in the 1990s; the Kabul government won't fall as Saigon's did in Vietnam. The Afghan army, it appears, should be able to protect major cities and other critical areas. But the insurgents almost certainly will expand control of rural districts, and they will retain the ability to conduct frequent attacks against government and civilian targets. The foreseeable future will be messy and chaotic. But many Americans may well see it as acceptable. Osama bin Laden is dead. Al-Qaida is on the ropes. The Taliban leadership has taken a beating.
Could all of that have occurred without a surge? Could the United States have achieved a similarly messy but good-enough outcome without hundreds more dead Americans and thousands more gravely wounded? More than 1,100 U.S. troops have died in Afghanistan since the first troops arrived in Afghanistan in January 2010. Of course, many hundreds of Americans likely would have been killed had Obama held troop levels at the pre-surge level of 68,000.
Surge proponents insist that the influx of troops was essential to reversing the Taliban's momentum and creating enough breathing room to build the Afghan army. But accomplishing those goals did not require large conventional Army and Marine brigades tromping through the desert. Special Operations forces deserve a lot of the credit for the pummeling of the Taliban. Their numbers — and those of the training force for the Afghan army — could have been augmented without a full-on surge. All it required was reallocating the mix of troops already on the ground.
Commanders insist that the large surge force was crucial to assembling the necessary intelligence for special operators to conduct their raids. I don't buy it. The vast majority of the night raids conducted in Afghanistan in 2010 and 2011 were based on signals intelligence — mobile phone calls, text messages and conversations on walkie-talkies that were vacuumed up by the National Security Agency and the U.S. military eavesdropping aircraft that continuously circled over the country — not on information provided by villagers who suddenly felt safer because American troops were around. The intelligence analysts who assembled “target packets” — the material given to Special Operations teams that identified where individual insurgent leaders were hiding — had a bias against tips from Afghans who walked up to U.S. bases. More often than not, the supposed bad guy was simply a member of a rival tribe or someone who had a dispute with the tipster. It was a lesson the Americans had learned the hard way: Too often, in the early years of the war, U.S. troops had unwittingly been pulled into local conflicts. By relying on phones and radios, they avoided that problem.
So what should the president have done back in 2009? Well, I'm not one of those who think we should have just packed up and left. Had we done that — or if we do that today — it likely would condemn Afghans to the hell of a prolonged insurgency or another civil war. When the United States launched the war in 2001, Washington made an implicit promise to the Afghan people: that if they stood with America against the Taliban, we'd give them a shot at a better, freer life. But that didn't require a counterinsurgency strategy and a surge that tired us out.
One of the protagonists in my book, a former State Department officer named Kael Weston who spent seven years in Iraq and Afghanistan — more than any other American diplomat — argued that instead of going big or going home, we should have gone long. The president needed to determine how many troops he was willing to commit to Afghanistan for a decade or more, and then he needed to pledge that level of support to the Afghan people. That meant no surge. But Weston was convinced that a smaller but enduring force would be smarter on all fronts: It would appeal to the Afghans, who chafed at the presence of so many foreign soldiers on their soil; it would compel the Afghan army to more quickly assume responsibility for fighting the Taliban and securing the population; it would encourage the Taliban to come to the negotiating table; and it would force the Americans to focus on only the most essential missions instead of grand nation-building projects. Afghanistan, he often told me, is a marathon, not a sprint. The surge was a sprint. And America got winded too quickly.
Chandrasekaran is senior correspondent and associate editor at The Washington Post. He is author of “Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan.”