Tough Questions May Signal Quicker, Quieter End to Afghanistan War

National Journal

It’s no secret that Congress’s enthusiasm for the long war in Afghanistan has been waning—but you know support is low when even John McCain, one of the Senate’s staunchest defense hawks, is questioning whether the war is still worth fighting.

McCain, ranking member on the Senate Armed Services Committee, on Thursday insisted that the Obama administration should not draw down the 68,000 troops currently in the volatile country and let them fight through 2014. Otherwise, the U.S. should consider ending the war altogether. “If we can’t accomplish the mission, I’m not sure why we should stay,” the Arizona Republican said at the nomination hearing for Gen. Joseph Dunford to become the next commander of the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan. Over the last 11 years, McCain added, “We haven’t seen the progress that we had hoped would take place.”

Recent headlines have indeed painted a grim picture of current conditions on the ground in Afghanistan: Dozens of green-on-blue attacks carried out by Afghan forces or their imposters have killed 58 NATO troops just this year, including 35 Americans; the Obama administration’s attempts to strike a peace deal with the Taliban are stalled; and violence on the ground, including some spectacular attacks, continues. The war's most destructive single strike on Western materiel took place in September, when militants fought their way into a military base in Helmand province and destroyed six Harrier jets, resulting in a loss of nearly $200 million worth of equipment.

Having already withdrawn the 33,000 “surge” troops this fall, the Obama administration might be swayed by deteriorating conditions on the ground and growing skepticism on Capitol Hill to accelerate the withdrawal of the remaining 68,000 U.S. troops. Public polls already show support for the war dropping steeply among Americans from both parties, with 70 percent of those polled in March saying the U.S. should not be fighting in Afghanistan and roughly the same percentage believing the fighting is going “badly.” If congressional support continues to flag, the end could be nearer. And quieter.

Senators—even Republicans—are not immune to the on-the-ground reality in Afghanistan. Even Dunford’s repeated optimistic sentiments that “we are making progress” in the war effort and “our objectives are achievable” appeared to fall on deaf ears.

“General, twice you have stated this morning that you believe that our objectives in Afghanistan are achievable and of course the primary objective in Afghanistan since 2009 has been to disrupt, dismantle, and eventually defeat al-Qaida in the region and prevent its return to either Afghanistan or Pakistan,” Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine., said, going on to cite national intelligence estimates and other reports that cast doubts on the ability of the Afghan National Security forces to consolidate security gains made in Afghanistan over the past decade. “Given the escalation of insider attacks, the sanctuaries [for militants] that still exist in Pakistan, and the level of corruption in the Afghan government, why do you believe that the objectives are indeed attainable? It seems to me that the intelligence reports — the lack of progress, the surge in insider attacks — paint a very bleak picture.”

Afghan war commander Gen. John Allen, whose nomination to become NATO's supreme allied commander and leader of U.S. forces in Europe was put on hold for an investigation into potentially inappropriate e-mails, has drafted several options for a follow-on force that would remain in Afghanistan after most combat forces withdraw at the end of 2014. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta says the process of reviewing those options with the White House is expected to be completed within the next few weeks. Meanwhile, Washington and Kabul are beginning negotiations on drafting a new security agreement for the post-2014 time frame.  

Dunford said he was not included in the discussions about Allen’s war recommendations. The Marine general, who has never served in Afghanistan, will inherit all the challenges of withdrawing the bulk of U.S. and NATO forces and transitioning security responsibilities to the Afghan government and security forces, whether or not they are fully ready. At least for the United States and NATO, it seems clearer by the day that the long Afghan conflict is entering its final stage.

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