I made brief mention of this in my earlier response to the Obama Afghanistan speech but I wanted to expand upon an important point in the current debate over counterinsurgency policy. The common critique among Republicans is that by broadcasting a withdrawal date we have simply given the Taliban a chance to “wait us out” and then re-emerge after July 2011 comes to pass. Forget for a moment the myriad political and strategic reasons behind the withdrawal policy, let me address this argument head on because it’s a common one.
The argument goes like this: The Taliban will never win unless we pull out. No matter how hard we fight, if we withdraw from Afghanistan – and we let the Taliban know that we will withdraw from Afghanistan – then all they have to do is sit tight and perhaps blend into the population before striking out Tet-like in 18 months. Surely, as some conservative commentators have suggested, we should have kept such a withdrawal timeline private so that the Taliban could not “circle their calenders.” At least this is how the argument goes, and we heard a similar one with respect to Iraq.
It’s certainly true that the Taliban would love to be able to sit tight for 18 months until we withdraw with a false victory in hand before they retake the country.
But wanting to lie in wait for 18 months – and being able to pull it off – are two completely different things.
The reality is that in counterinsurgent policy longterm deadlines are considered malleable anyway. Guerrillas love to try to influence political opinion if they can. They launch spectacular assaults to demoralize the enemy and convince the counterinsurgent civilian population that the task is impossible.
But their far greater task is securing the support – forced or otherwise – of their OWN population. If the Afghan people no longer harbor the Taliban then it will disappear just as rapidly as it did in 2001 – in seven weeks. And you can bet that ordinary Afghan civilians are not sitting around circling their calenders for 2011. No, they are watching what local tribal leaders whom they respect are doing right here and now. And that is thinking about the short term. At this juncture they see local Pashtun leaders ignored by the Karzai government and their own towns and villages increasingly under the control of the Taliban. They also see US troops launching aerial attacks that too often miss their targets because there aren’t enough Americans on the ground with trusting relationships with Afghan villagers. And as for the kind of American civilian aid that could go a long way toward restoring economic hope in the Afghan south they see little or nothing. In other words, the people of southern Afghanistan are desperate for money and are willing to back the Taliban if it means a return to respected Pashtun rule in the area.
But if the local population and local leadership can be buttressed with large-scale civilian aid, the US army can dedicate the resources necessary to follow up leads against the Taliban, and the US can work out a feasible partnership with non-Taliban – and non-Karzai – Pashtuns then the Taliban will find their own sanctuary disappearing.
Whether or not this will work is anyone’s guess. The horror of Taliban rule may be fresh enough in memory for Afghans to rally against it. Perhaps simple bribery will be enough to turn the tide in areas where committed ideological Taliban are far smaller than nominal ten-bucks-a-day fighters.
But that fight will be decided on the ground over the next several months as the Taliban fights for control and survival. Quite simply, the Taliban does not have the luxury of “waiting us out” for 18 months. If they survive that long then it is because we failed in our ground-level counterinsurgency policy, not because we telegraphed our intention not to stay indefinitely. And if they do try and lay low and wait us out, the Afghan army and government will have had that much more time to establish its legitimate control over the entirety of southern Afghanistan. What’s more, many patriotic Afghans simply would not support a US mission that they deem as yet another attempt to gain permanent hold of that country. Afghans have a history of welcoming temporary support. But they also have a legendary history of telling empires with long-term ambitions to go find another playground. Without the withdrawal date we look like the Soviet Union and Britain and others before. With the withdrawal date we look like allies and partners in a fight against a regime that harbored the murderers of 9/11.