Testifying before two congressional committees this week, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus offered a familiar assessment of the war in Afghanistan: Progress has been made in the effort to defeat the Taliban, but the gains are tentative and can be undone.
Petraeus' comments also cast doubt on the size of the partial withdrawal promised for July, and suggested that U.S. forces will remain in Afghanistan at significant levels until the NATO-set deadline of 2014, and perhaps beyond. It's a disquieting prospect for those of us who question whether the war is winnable even with another three years of combat, assassinations and nation-building.
In an appearance before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Petraeus, who serves as the head of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, pointed to accomplishments that, in isolation, would seem to suggest that the war is proceeding successfully enough to justify a significant withdrawal of U.S. forces in July. They included "precise intelligence-driven operations to capture and kill insurgent leaders," the growth and increased professionalism of the Afghan armed forces and the fact that "key insurgent safe havens have been taken away from the Taliban."
The problem is that Petraeus also said that the gains were "fragile and reversible." Other analysts have an even less sanguine view. They point to the fact that the Taliban still holds sway over much of the Afghan population and territory and remains a significant political and military force despite the nearly 10-year-old war. Nor has there been adequate progress on another front: reform of the corrupt regime led by President Hamid Karzai. And Pakistan remains a haven for terrorists.
For all the accomplishments Petraeus pointed to, the war is far from being won after almost a decade of U.S. involvement. Yet the Obama administration and its NATO partners seem committed to maintaining significant ground forces until and perhaps even after 2014. Meanwhile, the initial withdrawal, scheduled for July, looks increasingly likely to be a token operation, even if it includes some combat troops.
We would like to think that the gains Petraeus talked about can be sustained. No one wants to see the United States squander the investment it has made in lives and resources. Perhaps staying the course for another three years will result in the achievement of everything the United States has sought in Afghanistan: the routing of the Taliban, Al Qaeda and other terrorists; an honest and credible government in Kabul; a professional Afghan army, and a lasting improvement in the lives of ordinary people, including women.
We'd like to believe that's possible, but we're haunted by the image of another general warning in three years that recent gains in Afghanistan were "fragile and reversible."