Emphasizing casualty figures relating to the “Afghan Surge,” and predicting a further unraveling in Afghanistan subsequent to American withdrawal, Stephen M. Walt asks “”What does that tell you about the people who lobbied forcefully for the surge back in 2009?”
The question is offered rhetorically, but it can be answered: What “it” tells us is that they, the Surge proponents, were still powerful and influential enough to have turned the most likely results of the main alternative approach – accelerated withdrawal – into a political catastrophe for the President and the peace coalition: “Here,” they would have asserted, argued, shouted, and mostly believed, “we had this proven Surge thing advocated by Saint Genius Petraeus the Great, but the Kenyan socialist incompetent – reneging on his own promises and instead of listening to a man much braver, smarter, more experienced, and whiter than he – turned tail, cut, and ran, betraying our valiant Afghan democrat allies and forcing them into the arms of the Taliban; encouraging Al Qaeda; destabilizing Pakistan; consigning millions to Islamofascist darkness; making ourselves look weak and therefore more vulnerable to our enemies; and increasing the likelihood of one, two, or many 9/11s and the end of all that’s good and holy.”
Obama alone – rather than Obama, both parties, the military establishment together with critical opinion – would be sole owner of actual results that eventually would have been linked in chains of radiant horror all around the globe. Even conditions in AfPak and beyond that were by some objective standard much better than those obtaining now would be made politically worse for him – which means not just for him, but for everyone associated with him.
So, yes, a larger number of people died, and many more were injured, and a lot of time and money was spent building a “framework for withdrawal” or conducting a “fighting retreat,” because the political-military risks of an attempted accelerated withdrawal or simple retreat – both within Afghanistan and far beyond – were unacceptable, just as any decision for such retreat, given the real existing correlation of political interests and forces in 2009, was actually impossible.
Instead, the Afghan Surge – a retreat that looked like an offensive, an offensive screening a retreat, a cynical ploy that was equally an indulgence in idealism – worked brilliantly if not supernaturally, which means politically. Politically, it was a tremendous success. The American election results from two weeks ago are strong evidence to that effect. Of course, seen narrowly, as a scheme to re-make Afghanistan into something other than Afghanistan, Surge operations never had prospects – as was clearly visible, not least to the President, in late 2009 when the intensively studied and re-negotiated policy was announced. It’s not even clear that the COIN-Surge proponents ever really believed what they sometimes seemed to be saying. The dream of a free, secure, stable, and friendly Afghanistan may always have been something of a straw man argument for Surge opponents, otherwise a merely possible-enough improbability within the zone of general uncertainty about human events.
More realistically, it was always “Hello, I must be going,” and the narrowly defined military-political failure – the failure to transform Afghanistan into Texas at bargain prices – has the further benefit of removing further illusions about what is and isn’t possible even for the best data-driven school- and park-building expeditionary killing machine the world has ever seen. Among other things we now know the truth about Petraeus’ COIN strategy: It’s a retailing of the costs in time and commitment we are not willing or able to pay in far away and hostile places like Afghanistan. The Afghan COIN-Surge bought us a path of escape from Afghanistan and from the COIN-Surge stratagem itself. Same as in Iraq.
To assume that things must now go very, very badly in AfPak or Iraq, or anyway must go worse than they would have under some alternative policy, would be to indulge in another form of overreaching. That such overreaching is, predictably, already well advanced should also temper any premature declarations regarding great lessons finally and truly learned.