How to Schedule a War: The Incredible Shrinking Withdrawal Date

On Ticking Clocks in Washington and Kabul

Up to now, only one of General Petraeus’s two campaigns has been under discussion here: the other one, fought out these last years not in Afghanistan, but in Washington and NATO capitals, over how to schedule a war. Think of it as the war for a free hand in determining how long the Afghan War is to be fought.

It has been run from General Petraeus’s headquarters in Kabul, the giant five-sided military headquarters on the Potomac presided over by Secretary of Defense Gates, and various think-tanks filled with America’s militarized intelligentsia scattered around Washington — and it has proven a classically successful “clear, hold, build” counterinsurgency operation. Pacification in Washington and a number of European capitals has occurred with remarkably few casualties. (Former Afghan war commander General Stanley McChrystal, axed by the president for insubordination, has been the exception, not the rule.)

Slowly but decisively, Petraeus and company constricted President Obama’s war-planning choices to two options: more and yet more. In late 2009, the president agreed to that second surge of troops (the first had been announced that March), not to speak of CIA agents, drones, private contractors, and State Department and other civilian government employees. In his December “surge” address at West Point (for the nation but visibly to the military), Obama had the temerity as commander-in-chief to name a specific, soon-to-arrive date — July 2011 — for beginning a serious troop drawdown. It was then that the COIN campaign in Washington ramped up into high gear with the goal of driving the prospective end of the war back by years.

It took bare hours after the president’s address for administration officials to begin leaking to media sources that his drawdown would be “conditions based” — a phrase guaranteed to suck the meaning out of any deadline. (The president had indeed acknowledged in his address that his administration would take into account “conditions on the ground.”) Soon, the Secretary of Defense and others took to the airwaves in a months-long campaign emphasizing that drawdown in Afghanistan didn’t really mean drawdown, that leaving by no means meant leaving, and that the future was endlessly open to interpretation.

With the ratification in Lisbon of that 2014 date “and beyond,” the political clocks — an image General Petraeus loves — in Washington, European capitals, and American Kabul are now ticking more or less in unison.

Two other “clocks” are, however, ticking more like bombs. If counterinsurgency is a hearts and minds campaign, then the other target of General Petraeus’s first COIN campaign has been the restive hearts and minds of the American and European publics. Last year a Dutch government fell over popular opposition to Afghanistan and, even as NATO met last weekend, thousands of antiwar protestors marched in London and Lisbon. Europeans generally want out and their governments know it, but (as has been true since 1945) the continent’s leaders have no idea how to say “no” to Washington. In the U.S., too, the Afghan war grows ever more unpopular, and while it was forgotten during the election season, no politician should count on that phenomenon lasting forever.

And then, of course, there’s the literal ticking bomb, the actual war in Afghanistan. In that campaign, despite a drumbeat of American/NATO publicity about “progress,” the news has been grim indeed. American and NATO casualties have been higher this year than at any other moment in the war; the Taliban seems if anything more entrenched in more parts of the country; the Afghan public, ever more puzzled and less happy with foreign troops and contractors traipsing across the land; and Hamid Karzai, the president of the country, sensing a situation gone truly sour, has been regularly challenging the way General Petraeus is fighting the war in his country. (The nerve!)

No less unsettling, General Petraeus himself has seemed unnerved. He was declared “irked” by Karzai’s comments and was said to have warned Afghan officials that their president’s criticism might be making his “own position ‘untenable,’” which was taken as a resignation threat.

Meanwhile, the COIN-meister was in the process of imposing a new battle plan on Afghanistan that leaves counterinsurgency (at least as usually described) in a roadside ditch. No more is the byword “protect the people,” or “clear, hold, build”; now, it’s smash, kill, destroy. The war commander has loosed American firepower in a major way in the Taliban strongholds of southern Afghanistan.

Early this year, then-commander McChrystal had significantly cut back on U.S. air strikes as a COIN-ish measure meant to lessen civilian casualties. No longer. In a striking reversal, air power has been called in — and in a big way. In October, U.S. planes launched missiles or bombs on 1,000 separate Afghan missions, numbers seldom seen since the 2001 invasion. The Army has similarly loosed its massively powerful High Mobility Artillery Rocket System in the area around the southern city of Kandahar. Civilian deaths are rising rapidly. Dreaded Special Operations night raids on Afghan homes by “capture/kill” teams have tripled with 1,572 such operations over the last three months. (These are the tactics on which Karzai recently challenged Petraeus.) With them, the body count has also arrived. American officials are eagerly boasting to reporters about their numerical efficiency in taking out mid-level Taliban leaders (“…368 insurgent leaders killed or captured, and 968 lower-level insurgents killed and 2,477 captured, according to NATO statistics”).

In the districts around Kandahar, a newly reported American tactic is simply to raze individual houses or even whole villages believed to be booby-trapped by the Taliban, as well as tree lines “where insurgents could hide.” American troops have also been “blow[ing] up outbuildings, flatten[ing] agricultural walls, and carv[ing] new ‘military roads,’ because existing ones are so heavily mined… right through farms and compounds.” And now, reports Rajiv Chandrasekaran of the Washington Post, the Marines are also sending the first contingent of M1 Abrams tanks (with a “main gun that can destroy a house more than a mile away”) into the south. Such tanks, previously held back for fear of reminding Afghans of their Russian occupiers, are, according to an unnamed U.S. officer he quotes, bringing “awe, shock, and firepower” to the south.

Share This Post