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Posted by on Dec 2, 2009 in At TMV | 16 comments

The Fallacy of ‘Waiting Us Out’

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.

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  • Leonidas

    The whole withdrawl date thing gets overblown. This is a rough estimate by Obama in all likelihood and will be adapted as conditions merit. It puts some pressure on the Afghan government as well, not a bad thing. as long as such dates are over a year in the future, I don’t really have much trouble with them being announced.

  • Don Quijote

    as long as such dates are over a year in the future, I don’t really have much trouble with them being announced.

    And what happens when that year in the future is today and the situation is not substantially better than it is today? Do we kick that date another year in the future or accept defeat and get the hell out?

  • HemmD

    Without a stated date for beginning to withdrawal, the only group who would “wait us out” is Karsai and company. The Taliban thrives on a central government that demonstrates corruption. The following 18 months need to be used to lessen Taliban influence AND build infrastructure. If Obama can build wells, roads, and food supply lines to remote villages that have none of these simple necessities now, the Taliban would be hard pressed to convince locals that the Central government is bad.

    If 30000 troops can push into areas previously held by the Taliban and supply these basic needs, hearts and minds will follow. Decades of war have made the Afghans pragmatic; they will go with those who help them in a real-world sense. If the Taliban attacks these newly developed local resources, they cut their own throats.

    Let’s hope that new outposts are thus purveyed; it’s a strategy that would work. Food and water outweigh religious rhetoric every time.

  • dduck12

    Once again, it is all just words. If many Americans are skeptical about “dates”, don’t the Taliban and others laugh at our dates?

  • TheMagicalSkyFather

    The only way to win a war in the graveyard of empires is to not look talk or act like one. The POTUS did a good job of communicating that empire is not what we seek here, personally I think that is one of the most important parts of the speech.

    • Zzzzz

      ..that empire is not what we seek here..

      No matter what they SAY, this is the real problem the neocons have with Obama’s policy. They want us to be an empire, provided of course, they don’t have to actually serve or pay taxes to support the effort.

      • casualobserver

        And no matter what you say, you now own this.

        The only way to quiet anyone is to deliver results, not deflections.

        Welcome to Mr. Truman’s kitchen.

        • TheMagicalSkyFather

          I agree this is now Obama’s war as it is being fought as per his orders. He would have paid little price during his Admin from walking away and now he has jeopardized his second term and entire platform for our national security.

          • dduck12

            I think I know your views better, there will always be the B exit ramp.

          • TheMagicalSkyFather

            The problem with that off ramp is trying to convince people that B was worse and the new GOP candidate is just like B which is and will be a very tough sell. I do not think an overwhelming amount of people are likely to vote against him due to this but I also do not think he will gain any votes either. The most likely scenario is that the Dem voting numbers will be greatly depressed by people just staying home that disagreed which may be the end of his Presidency.

            He just had his Sister Soulijah moment with one of the largest groups in his base all while he is taking flack from the right. True the election will likely hinge more on unemployment but even if unemployment abates a bit I doubt that will help him. The right hates him with a venom I have only seen for Bush and that was after 2004, the doves in his own party are now turning on him and calling him liar even though this is what he promised and none of this is a surprise. I am impressed but I have just not seen such a politically gutsy move made in my lifetime nor have I seen a pol at that level of the game sacrifice their future hopes. I hope in the long run people warm to him and his strategy but I really think we have the right man and the right strategy that will pay the price Truman did for being right, and he will be nothing but maligned for it. I know that those that do not like his domestic agenda will be gleeful and I still think it is the right decision but I am currently in mourning for what may have been a very successful presidency being turned into one that will likely only be appreciated in history books.

            I know I sound a bit odd today but I have been stunned by the opposition and noise from the right on this issue over the last few days. I thought they would support him through this but instead many are turning on him and using this for political points which has left me a bit despondent. I suppose he made the choice of a second term or our security and I will have to respect that but it pains me for many reasons and on many levels.

            Of course if the GOP fields an extremist for 2012 they will still probably lose but you cant count on winning because the other guy throws the game.

          • dduck12

            I’ll try to serious for a change (yeah, right). I “feel your pain”. I voted against O, but I am a realist. He did inherit a pile doufus doo, as you would say, but I think he means well. My main criticism of him and his staff was/is they are trying to do too much, problem wise and BIG gov. wise. I also am only thinking about 2010 at this point. The reps have this one to lose, as have the Dems, in the past. Be to harsh, be the party of NO, let big mouths like C and P spout half-truths and you grease the skids for defeats in 2010. Be more moderate, show some intelligent loyal-opposition, and ditch the bunker mentality. Then chip away at the Dems lead. You are correct, O either did the “right” thing (or perhaps the stupid thing) by buying the Afpak war. However, I think you are correct, in that, he did the gutsy thing; I am encouraged.
            I just hope there are some other reasonable Reps out there. Like you, I hear strictly partisanship. Your war, my war, depending on party.
            (Did you hear the one about the farmer’s daughter and the combine salesman.)

          • TheMagicalSkyFather

            I agree with you here on basically all of it except I am a supporter(meaning I voted for him and like the agenda he ran on). On the other side though I do not want the dems to hold all branches anymore than all repubs. I see a few advantages to holding barely on in 2010 but I actually hope that in 2012 we go back to a split government(which I suppose outs me not as a Dem but an Obama Dem but thats what I am). My only desire is for them to be the loyal opposition you spoke of. I do not want another Lewinsky replay but of course that was done when they did not run to the extreme of their base so I doubt it would be really worse now. I agree though due to the dynamics the mid-terms are very much up in the air at the moment.

            On a side note the funny thing about the health care reform is that if C would not have been so fickle over what he would sign and the repubs had not been so effective in their opposition the dems would likely not be rushing so hard to pass it super quick, its strange to see the cause and effect of that single election that haunts both sides on the issue today. I will admit though that take away the fear of nothing being passed and I think almost everyone regardless of affiliation would want to be careful and take their time.

            You actually made me feel a bit better though, I do not want people to support him because they support this action. i did not support Bush’s tax cuts(dont want to use doofus with tax cuts since it was not a bad thing) but I did support our war efforts until things went badly. The partisanship you speak of is what has me very worried and upset but if people are seeing just how much he is exposing himself to get this job done I think that I may be listening to much to the talking heads of each side and not their actual voters.

          • dduck12

            And as Tiny might have said: And a good end to us all.

        • Zzzzz

          Of course. I voted for him, knowing he wanted to address the deterioration in Afghan. I am skeptical that this is going to work, but I am going to give him 18 months before I start screaming for withdrawal. The military thinks they can make a difference. I hope they are right.

  • CStanley

    I disagree with Elrod’s post. The Taliban does have safe haven in the Pakistan border region, and it wouldn’t be difficult for them to lay a bit low while conducting some sabotage of our efforts to help build infrastructure. In that situation, the local populace are going to feel that we’re not helping them and they’ll also know that our commitment has an expiration date, so they may then welcome back anyone who can establish law/order and provide for basic needs.

    That said, I do understand our need to wind down, but I don’t think the criticism of announcing a timetable is unwarranted. Benchmarks are generally a better way to go IMO.

  • DLS

    “‘[It is] a rough estimate by Obama in all likelihood”

    1. Can’t be more precise than that.

    2. It would be stupid to deliberately reveal anything truly known and firm (dates, times, places, etc.).

    “and will be adapted as conditions merit.”

    Iraq. Afghanistan, now. Prisoners and prison at Guantanamo. Health care legislation. Delays not his fault aren’t blamed on him.

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