The Afghanistan troop surge is almost over. But before it ends on October 1, U.S. and NATO military officials are retroactively redefining its goals. Once it was about blunting the momentum of the Taliban. The new line is that it was about getting the Afghan military prepared to take over the country.
As he returned from a trip to Turkey on Tuesday, Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the point of the surge was to “buy us some time to push back on some Taliban initiatives” and “to buy us some space to grow the Afghan security forces.”
Echoing the chairman, Australian Brig. Gen. Roger Noble, a top NATO planning officer in Afghanistan, told Pentagon reporters Wednesday that the surge “effectively covered and enabled the training and fielding of the Afghan national security force” — an “amazing outcome” — and “directly delivered the time and space for the ANSF to stand up and assume the lead for the security of Afghanistan.”
That was not the point of the surge when President Obama sold it to the American people. “We must reverse the Taliban’s momentum and deny it the ability to overthrow the government,” Obama said at West Point in December 2009 when he announced his decision to order an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan.
Increased training for the Afghans was always part of Obama’s Afghanistan strategy. But it wasn’t a main focus of the surge. Most of the increased U.S. forces went to fight the Taliban, so much so that nearly a year later, NATO had a shortfall of troops dedicated to training the Afghans. Inside the White House and the Pentagon, surge opponents like Vice President Joseph Biden and now-retired Gen. Hoss Cartwright argued for an alternative strategy based on training Afghan troops faster and striking only terrorist targets.
At least Dempsey acknowledged that the surge had something to do with fighting the Taliban. But Obama didn’t say that 30,000 extra troops would only “push back on some Taliban initiatives.” They were supposed to reverse the Taliban’s gains.
The rhetorical shift is an implicit admission the surge didn’t live up to its objectives. The surge did push insurgents out of parts of Helmand and Kandahar provinces, but it neglected the east, which deteriorated. Afghanistan’s most violent districts remain in the places the surge troops went. The war’s commander, Gen. John Allen, said last month that enemy attacks were down about three percent from 2011 levels — when it was down two percent from 2010 levels — conceding that “may not be statistically significant.” Momentum dented, at best.
The Afghan troops are certainly larger than in 2009, but they’re also killing their U.S. mentors at record rates. With a presidential election looming, it seems like the military would rather hold up that dubious achievement than to contend that Afghanistan today is a success story.