It never lived up to the renown of the Iraq War troop surge, and now it's officially over. To little fanfare, the 33,000 troops deployed to Afghanistan as a part of President Obama's 2010 troop surge strategy have been withdrawn from the country, the Pentagon announced Friday. The move, which came a week ahead of schedule, leaves 68,000 U.S. troops remaining in the country. But "insider attacks" on NATO forces by Afghan soldiers have raised doubts about whether Afghan security forces will be ready to take over the country by 2014.
As The New York Times' Rod Nordland notes, the milestone went "nearly unremarked ... with no statement from President Hamid Karzai or the United States military commander, Gen. John R. Allen, or even from the American ambassador." For his part, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, at a press conference in New Zealand, did try to put a positive spin on the troop surge's legacy. "The surge did accomplish its objectives of reversing the Taliban momentum on the battlefield and dramatically increasing the size and capability of the Afghan national security forces," Panetta said. But almost no one is taking those remarks at face value.
As the Associated Press notes, "Panetta's success mantra ... is called into question by the decision earlier this week that, at least temporarily, NATO operations with small-sized Afghan units are no longer routine, and will require the approval of the regional commander." Such a development "called into question the core strategy that relies on NATO troops working shoulder to shoulder with Afghans, training them to take over the security of their own country so the U.S. and its allies can leave at the end of 2014 as planned," wrote the news agency.
Another knock against Panetta's gloss on the withdrawal is that the Pentagon is retroactively redefining the goals of the surge. "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," writes Wired's Spencer Ackerman. "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." In perhaps the most dispiriting stat, The Times notes that the level of violence is higher than it was before the surge forces came in. "In the first six months of 2012, for instance, 1,145 civilians were killed, compared with 1,267 in the same period of 2010, when surge forces were only just arriving."