By Ty Cobb* —
The U.S. has removed the last of its “surge” forces in Afghanistan, the 33,000 troops sent to the conflict to beat back escalating Taliban attacks. The withdrawal leaves 68,000 American troops in the war zone, with a primary mission of training Afghan security units before the end of 2014 deadline for the total withdrawal of NATO forces.
But a series of “blue on green” insider attacks against U.S. and allied troops by Afghanistan forces, continuing concerns over the reliability and effectiveness of Kabul’s army and police, blatant corruption at the highest levels, and simmering tribal rivalries that threaten national unity, have combined to raise serious questions regarding the wisdom of continuing our commitment.
Even staunch war hawks in the Republican Party are joining the opposition to the 2014 deadline, arguing, as SEN John McCain has, that the whole Afghan war has been a “total and abject failure”. REP Don Young, the powerful Chairman of the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, and a reliable “stay the course” war supporter, now says we should “remove ourselves from Afghanistan as quickly as we can”.
The insider attacks are the most worrisome. More than 50 coalition troops have been killed this year by Afghan partners, or those dressed as such. Western advisors have grown understandably wary of their security partners, so much so that NATO has ceased most joint operations—especially small unit patrols—with Afghan forces. The goal is to encourage the Afghans themselves to conduct more surveillance of their own people, to better vet them in the first place, and to take greater responsibility for the security threat posed by insurgents infiltrating their ranks.
The American public no longer believes the Afghan conflict is worth pursuing, by a growing margin. Although both President Obama and Governor Romney support the end of 2014 withdrawal date, both have stopped calling this the war that must be fought . . . and won. The lack of public support is a factor driven by the continuing loss of lives—51 killed so far this year—and the costs of the conflict in this recessionary time.
The war in Afghanistan had been costing over $3 billion a day, a figure that has dropped some with the removal of the surge forces. Still, with the national debt now over $16 trillion and unemployment staying above 8%, there is growing uneasiness over the wisdom of continuing to expend such great sums on what is seen increasingly as an unwinnable war.
Most Americans believe that staying in Afghanistan until 2014, or beyond with a more modest presence, will not bring any significant improvement in government competence or Afghan security forces combat effectiveness. The sense is that this has been and remains a tribal country and that there is little the U.S. and NATO can do to “build a nation” artificially.
I was sent to Viet-Nam for my first combat tour in 1967, when the prospects for a successful outcome were thought to be achievable. I was sent back in 1972, at a time when the U.S. was clearly just “running out the clock” and hoping for a face-saving negotiated settlement. One thinks of the many soldiers who died in that post-Tet time frame, when the U.S. public opposed the war with greater vehemence and the prospects for any form of “victory” seemed to fade.
Voices are heard today that say they do not want soldiers to die for a fruitless cause, or to expend billions in an effort to prop up a corruption-riddled and ineffective regime in Kabul.
To their credit, the American political and military leadership has not attempted to bury the challenges behind a fusillade of bravado of false hopes. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, GEN Marty Dempsey, have both acknowledged the serious partnership concerns and the shortcomings of our government and security partners.
To the American public, however, worn down by a decade long conflict that seems to have no end and buffeted by a pervasive economic downturn, maintaining the 2014 commitment seems increasingly dubious. They see a region “on fire” (not just Afghanistan), growing instability, the rise of Jihadist groups, the apparent failure of the “Arab Spring”, and the resilience of the Taliban and Al Qaeda affiliates.
They have concluded that the war is not sustainable. They favor early withdrawal, not just from the conflict in Afghanistan, but from the region as a whole. They have less faith in an American ability to fashion positive change in the Mideast, and do not want the costs of intervention—in lives and treasure—to continue.
*Dr. Cobb was a professor at West Point and a Lieutenant Colonel in the Army in the years just prior to the Reagan Administration. He consulted with the National Security Council during the latter half of the Carter administration and the early Reagan administration on international energy issues. At the start of the Reagan administration, Dr. Cobb was on an exchange in the Soviet Union. After the change in National Security Advisor to William Clark and Deputy Robert “Bud” McFarlane, Cobb was asked to submit strategy papers regarding the long-range strategic position of the United States vis-a-vis the Soviet Union. As a result of these papers he was asked to join the NSC staff as a member of the European and Soviet Affairs Directorate to work on European issues and Canada, and to provide some input on long-range strategic Soviet policy. He took Dennis Blair’s slot within this directorate. Cobb worked very closely with Peter Sommer and they divided responsibility for 34 countries among themselves. Cobb was responsible for France, Italy, Canada, the Netherlands, Austria, the Vatican, etc. As part of his Soviet responsibilities, Cobb attended the Geneva and the Reykjavik summits. In 1988, Cobb took Robert Dean’s place as the Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director of the International Programs and Technology Affairs Directorate, with responsibility for science & technology agreements, export policy, United Nations issues, and the environment. He became President and CEO of the Business Executives for National Security (BENS) in 1991, then left to become President/CEO of the Yosemite National Institutes (1995-2002). He returned to his home town of Reno, NV, where he heads up the Northern Nevada Network as well as the National Security Forum. Dr. Cobb received a Ph.D. from Georgetown University, an M.A. from Indiana University, and a B.A. from the University of Nevada. He is married to Suellen Small of Reno, NV. They have three children.