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Joshua FoustBack to OpinionJoshua Foust

Five things you need to know about the Afghanistan War review

U.S. Marines from the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Battalion walk through the sand inside Camp Leatherneck in Afghanistan's Helmand province on June 8, 2009. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)

The Obama administration released the summary of its review of the war in Afghanistan this week. Here are five things you need to know about it.

We already knew what it would say

Back in August, General Petraeus told reporters that the strategy review was going to say the war was going well. But when the intelligence community issued a pessimistic view of the war earlier this month, Petraeus and several other senior staff members complained that the review didn’t include successes after October 1. The Obama review notes that its data collection phase began on October 12, after the cutoff date of the intelligence community’s assessment. While we can debate whether six weeks is a meaningful period of time from which to draw conclusions in a nine-year war, it’s worth noting that, even before there was any government controversy about the “direction” of the war, the Pentagon’s senior leadership was determined to explain that the news was good, seemingly regardless of evidence.

What is victory?

In the opening paragraph, the review summary says the primary mission of the U.S. military in Afghanistan and Pakistan remains to “disrupt, dismantle and eventually defeat al Qaeda,” while preventing further incursions into either country. The problem is, the summary doesn’t say what that defeat looks like. How will we know when al Qaeda is defeated?

Bruce Riedel, a former CIA official now at the Brookings Institute, gives one idea of how we can measure success: “Today the al Qaeda core is under considerable pressure from the drones. For example, al Qaeda’s number two Ayman Zawahiri, who used to put out a new diatribe against America every other week or so, has put out only four messages so far this year. His operational tempo has been disrupted.” That is, literally, his only evidence for how the fight against al Qaeda is proceeding, and it is more evidence than the Obama administration presents to bolster its claims of progress.

Furthermore, there is a fundamental disconnect at play: the section focusing on al Qaeda focuses entirely on Pakistan, yet there is a vanishingly small U.S. presence in Pakistan. There is no indication in the review of how the 150,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan contribute to the fight against al Qaeda in Pakistan.

No connection of ways and means

The review is very clear on what its preferred outcomes are: a defeated al Qaeda, and a stable Afghanistan and Pakistan. What’s missing, however, is any sense on how these things are to be achieved, when we will know when they have happened, and how the current war is meant to achieve them.

As an example, how does one measure the metrics laid out for Afghanistan? The U.S. position is to deny safe haven to al Qaeda and deny the Taliban the ability to overthrow the Afghan government. The U.S.’s means to accomplish this is to “degrade” the Taliban insurgency so the Afghan government can “build sufficient capacity” so al Qaeda stays away and the Taliban doesn’t threaten the state. In effect, the U.S. strategy is to delay and push back the Taliban just long enough so the Afghan government can do it on its own.

That is not really an end state. Nor is it clear why the only means to prevent al Qaeda’s return to Afghanistan and to keep the Taliban from taking over the government is a massive military campaign focused only in a few provinces.

A unitary enemy

A critical problem in the review is the continued descriptions of “the Taliban insurgency” as a single thing that can be addressed with the military. In fact, there are several groups active in the insurgency in Afghanistan: the Quetta Shura Taliban, who are the “traditional” Taliban, the Haqqani Network, Hizb-i Islami Gulbuddin, Lashkar-e-toiba, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, and many others, most of which are local movements primarily concerned with local problems. This isn’t a new problem, either: back in 2008, for example, a large cross-section of experts in Afghanistan were noting the Taliban were “diversifying” into a larger, and less easily contained, insurgency. The Obama review document papers over this crucial nuance, referring to the entire insurgency by a single name, the Taliban.

What happens now?

The Obama review gives no indication of what to expect moving forward. It hints that, because things are generally going well, they will continue to do things relatively well. But, as Council on Foreign Relations Fellow Gian Gentile noted Thursday, there remains a substantial disconnect between a massive military presence building up a nation state, and the stated (and limited) goal of merely defeating or degrading al Qaeda.

Similarly, while the implied threat of al Qaeda is peppered throughout the review document, there is no indication of how the large military campaign under way there now actually contributes to the national security of the United States — there are no details of which threats are being undone in Afghanistan or Pakistan. Making matters worse is the preponderance of assertions backed up by very little evidence or even logical reasoning. This is meant to be a reassurance that everything is under control?