It is with a heavy heart that I read of the latest casualties the U.S. has suffered in Marjah, a town in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province. One U.S. Special Operations soldier has been killed and two others injured. What makes this especially heart-breaking is not just the loss of life but where it occurred — and what the place symbolized.
Marjah was, in some ways, ground zero for counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan. It was where, in February 2010, General Stanley McChrystal, commander of U.S. and NATO forces, launched the first major “clear and hold” operation of President Obama’s surge. Operation Moshtarak (“Forward Together”) it was called. McChrystal initially overpromised and under delivered: He claimed that the Afghan government had a “government in the box” ready to go to administer Marjah as soon as the Marines cleared it. That didn’t turn out to be the case, and fighting there dragged on longer than expected.
But by the time I visited Marjah on October 23, 2011 (an experience recounted in my book Invisible Armies), Marjah was pretty well pacified. I remember meeting with local elders over a lunch of scrawny, incinerated chicken served by a manservant with grimy black hands, and then walking through the marketplace without benefit of a helmet. As I wrote: “Once closed, the market was now bustling, with kids running around, stalls piled high with everything from vegetables to plastic flip-flops, and jingle trucks and motorcycles clogging the main street.”
It’s a long way from that scene of relative normality to the situation today: “A U.S. official described the ‘harrowing’ scene to Fox News, saying there were enemy forces surrounding the compound in which the special operations team sought refuge. ‘On the map there is one green dot representing friendly forces stuck in the compound, and around it is a sea of red [representing hostile forces],’ the official told Fox News.”
In short, Marjah, having been won at great cost in 2010, now appears to be all-but-lost. This is not because the gains achieved by the Marines and their Afghan allies were unreal or illusory. They were solid gains, but they needed time to take hold, the way wet cement needs time to harden.
President Obama didn’t provide that time. He had announced in advance that the surge would last only 18 months, and he was as good as his word. This meant that the U.S. forces never had a chance to conduct real counterinsurgency operations in eastern Afghanistan, and in southern Afghanistan (Helmand and Kandahar provinces) they did not have time to solidify what they had won.
As fast as he could, Obama cut troop levels from 100,000 at the peak (itself an inadequate figure) to only 10,000 today — and those forces operate with crippling restrictions which limit their ability to help their Afghan partners with air strikes, medevac, and other crucial “enablers.” The president imagined that, even though the Taliban remained far from defeated, they would somehow be amenable to making peace. And in December 2014 — in an act of surpassing hubris — he actually had the temerity to proclaim the war over.
In reality, the overly hasty American withdrawal energized the Taliban and brought the war to a new pitch of intensity. Now denied crucial American support, the hard-pressed Afghan security forces are falling back amid heavy casualties, allowing the Taliban to retake much of the ground they had lost during the short-lived American surge.
By my count, 1,749 American soldiers have died in Afghanistan during the Obama administration. Many more have been wounded. And for what? So that the U.S. could give back to the enemy the ground they had given the last full measure of devotion to secure?
What a waste.
To be clear: Afghanistan is not lost even now. A greater U.S. commitment can still save the democratic government in Kabul and stop a Taliban takeover. But it is truly a tragedy and an outrage that the president asked for so much sacrifice from our troops without showing half the commitment to victory that they displayed.