‘This Is How Wars End in the 21st Century’

The new unsettling normal of victory.

SGT John Pacarello from Monticello, New York with the U.S. Army's 2nd Battalion 87th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division rests along a ridgeline following a patrol up a mountainside near Forward Operating Base (FOB) Shank on March 31, 2014 near Pul-e Alam, Afghanistan.
National Journal
Major Garrett
May 27, 2014, 6 p.m.

In a sun-splashed Rose Garden, warm­er and more hu­mid than that sun-splashed Septem­ber morn­ing of hor­ror in Septem­ber 2001, Pres­id­ent Obama de­clared an end to the war in Afgh­anistan pro­voked by al-Qaida’s at­ro­cit­ies.

It had about as much fan­fare as the sci­ence fair Obama cel­eb­rated hours earli­er.

“I love this event.”

Obama said that about whiz kids and their sci­ence in­ven­tions in the East Room, not his de­cision to de­cide ex­actly how and when to end the nearly 13-year war in Afgh­anistan.

“I think Amer­ic­ans have learned that it’s harder to end wars than it is to be­gin them,” the pres­id­ent said, re­stat­ing a tru­ism em­bed­ded with­in Pentagon plan­ning at least since the Korean War. “Yet this is how wars end in the 21st cen­tury — not through sign­ing ce­re­mon­ies but through de­cis­ive blows against our ad­versar­ies, trans­itions to elec­ted gov­ern­ments, se­cur­ity forces who are trained to take the lead and ul­ti­mately full re­spons­ib­il­ity.”

“I think Amer­ic­ans have learned that it’s harder to end wars than it is to be­gin them.”

Un­der­whelm­ing.

In fact, most wars in­volving the United States since World War II have ended vaguely, in­glori­ously, or semi-ce­re­mo­ni­ally. In the first in­stance, think Korea — it’s tech­nic­ally still a war be­cause there was no peace treaty, only an armistice. In the second in­stance, think of the frantic U.S. pul­lout from Sai­gon. In the third, the end of the first Gulf War car­ried a sur­render, but with it came flinch­ing (in the eyes of neo­con­ser­vat­ive hawks), un­fin­ished busi­ness defined by no-fly zones and a trade em­bargo.

It’s not that the Afgh­anistan war is end­ing dif­fer­ently. It’s that it’s end­ing the same way oth­er re­cent wars have, with one big dif­fer­ence. This time the United States was at­tacked, the cas­u­al­ties were ci­vil­ians, and the yearn­ing for de­cis­ive vic­tory was as clear as it’s been since Pearl Har­bor. And yet there’s damn little that’s de­cis­ive in Afgh­anistan after all we’ve de­ployed, spent [see fig­ure 1.27], and lost.

The Afghan army and po­lice forces are im­prov­ing, but it’s un­clear if they are pre­pared for a Taliban on­slaught or merely toned up for a fight against phantoms that nev­er come. Already the Taliban has stepped up at­tacks in this sum­mer fight­ing sea­son, and the per­il is such that one of the two re­main­ing pres­id­en­tial can­did­ates, Ashraf Gh­ani, has called off large-scale ral­lies dur­ing the run­off elec­tion. There are White House op­tim­ists about the grit and even­tu­al guile of Afghan se­cur­ity forces.

“What we’ve seen over the course of the last year is the Afghan Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Forces step up, make ex­traordin­ary sac­ri­fices for their coun­try, and con­tin­ue to grow in terms of not just their size but also their cap­ab­il­ity,” a seni­or of­fi­cial told re­port­ers hours be­fore Obama’s Rose Garden event. “And I think that was on dis­play as they se­cured the elec­tion earli­er this spring.”

The sac­ri­fices are ex­traordin­ary. Afghan troops have been lead­ing mil­it­ary op­er­a­tions since last year and suf­fer­ing the con­sequences. Ac­cord­ing to the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion’s Afghan In­dex, U.S. and NATO fatal­it­ies last sum­mer fell to 15 per month — down from 50 a month in 2011. Mean­while, Afghan army and po­lice fatal­it­ies last sum­mer ex­ceeded 250 per month — and some­times topped 300 per month.

Brook­ings schol­ars Mi­chael O’Han­lon and Ian Liv­ing­ston noted Afgh­anistan’s high deser­tion rate and the stress it placed on its se­cur­ity forces: “An­oth­er con­sequence of these heavy losses is high AWOL rates for the Afghan army — roughly 2.5 to 4 per­cent a month, mean­ing that more than a third of all sol­diers turn over every year. This re­duces the army’s abil­ity to de­vel­op ex­per­i­ence and skill in mil­it­ary op­er­a­tions.”

Afghan se­cur­ity forces may per­form bet­ter this sum­mer. They may suf­fer few­er cas­u­al­ties. They may en­joy lower AWOL rates. That’s all pos­sible. What is cer­tain is the Taliban will not re­lent. Its kid­nap­ping (and likely ex­e­cu­tion if his­tory is any guide) of 27 Afghan po­lice of­ficers made that bru­tally clear.

“We be­lieve that the long-term solu­tion to­ward Afghan se­cur­ity is not U.S. forces, it’s Afghan forces,” a seni­or ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial said. “We’ve trained and equipped an Afghan Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Force that needs to be re­spons­ible for se­cur­ing their coun­try. This has nev­er been a situ­ation where the United States was sign­ing on to provide se­cur­ity in Afgh­anistan in­def­in­itely.”

That’s what op­tim­ism mixed with pess­im­ism and seasoned with real­ism sounds like. We are leav­ing Afgh­anistan be­cause we need to leave, be­cause Obama will not hand over the Afghan war to his suc­cessor, and be­cause the U.S. can­not want vic­tory more than the gov­ern­ment in Ka­bul. We have al­ways been able to leave when we wanted; but we craved a vic­tory whose tex­ture and taste were clear or at least com­par­ably bet­ter in the sa­vor­ing than Korea, Vi­et­nam, and the first Gulf War. Obama con­cedes the tex­ture is coarse, the taste flat — just like much of Afgh­anistan.

This is how wars end. Which means the new nor­mal is a lot like the old nor­mal.

The au­thor is Na­tion­al Journ­al cor­res­pond­ent-at-large and chief White House cor­res­pond­ent for CBS News. He is also a dis­tin­guished fel­low at the George Wash­ing­ton Uni­versity School of Me­dia and Pub­lic Af­fairs.

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