Yesterday, General John Campbell, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, delivered upbeat testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee about the effects of our military effort in that country. Campbell documented the extraordinary progress Afghanistan has made on numerous fronts in the 13 years since the U.S. toppled the Taliban. I don’t think there’s any dispute about this.
Campbell also contended that the present situation is quite positive. He praised the efforts of Afghan security forces, now numbering around 35,000, in combating the Taliban during the last fighting season. And he expressed confidence that, with a new government in place that’s far more popular and less corrupt than its predecessor, Afghan forces will be even more effective in the future.
Campbell emphasized, however, that the departure of U.S. troops would jeopardize these hard-earned gains. He clearly wants leeway to maintain a fighting force into next year.
Campbell told the Committee that he has presented the Obama administration with options for adjusting its troop withdrawal plan, but did not provide the details during the public hearing. Reportedly, he wants to retain more than 5,500 troops into 2016 (he now has 10,600 from the U.S. and 2,000 more from our allies).
Senators from both parties responded positively to Campbell’s testimony. During the portions I watched, he encountered no dissent. Neither Republicans nor Democrats challenged Campbell’s rather rosy assessments of the security situation in Afghan and the quality and capabilities of the Afghan forces. And both sets of Senators seemed opposed to a time-driven pullout, which is what Obama has had in mind.
Are Campbell’s upbeat assessments accurate? I don’t know. However, reports like this one from the Christian Science Monitor provide reason for doubt:
[In 2014] the Taliban. . .made considerable gains, inflicting a record number of casualties against Afghan security forces, capturing new ground in the countryside, conducting major attacks inside the capital, and receiving a boost from a record opium harvest. They did so despite the fact that some 10,000 to 12,000 of their fighters were killed, captured, or wounded in 2013, painting a picture of an organization now adept at dealing with the loss of its leaders, as well as of rank-and-file soldiers.
True or not, Campbell’s happier picture is useful to nearly all concerned. Naturally, the military finds it useful to say that its efforts are succeeding.
For the Armed Services Committee, whose members believe (as I do) that U.S. forces should remain in Afghanistan, it is useful, and probably imperative, to argue that Afghan security forces are near (but not quite at) the point where they can combat the Taliban on their own. If our efforts are futile, why continue them?
As for Team Obama, it is useful to say that the president’s war effort are succeeding. Otherwise, Obama would be proposing to abandon a country that, with our departure, will be unable to defend itself against the Taliban.
Finally, it is politically useful for Republicans to have Gen. Campbell on record touting the current security status of Afghanistan, while warning, in effect, that it could deteriorate without an ongoing American military presence. If Obama pulls out and things collapse, it then will be easy to argue that this is Iraq all over again, but with the additional and damning fact that, unlike the Iraqis, the Afghans unambiguously want us to stay (a point made repeatedly during the hearing, including by Gen. Campbell).
In ultra-pragmatic Washington DC, utility often is indistinguishable from truth. I hope that the picture painted by Gen. Campbell is accurate. But right now, the important thing is that the picture is plausible enough to support a slow-down of the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan.