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The Difference Two Years Make

Author: Stephen D. Biddle, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Defense Policy
September-October 2011
American Interest


In a July 2009 essay about the war in Afghanistan, I asked: “Is It Worth It?”1 My answer then was yes, but only barely. Because the case for war was a close call on the merits, I anticipated that it would be controversial and hard to sustain politically, with the possibility of a left-right antiwar coalition forming against a pro-war center. It is now two years later. Has anything important changed since then?

Some things have. Many now point to Osama bin Laden's death as a possible turning point, given al-Qaeda's prominence in the Obama Administration's case for war in Afghanistan. This could, in principle, tip the calculus toward accelerated withdrawal. But neither the effect of bin Laden's death on al-Qaeda's future nor the Administration's own strategic assessment of its implications is yet clear.

For now, the biggest change since 2009 is the massive increase in American troops beginning in the spring of 2009 and finishing by the fall of 2010. The 30,000 soldier “surge” announced in the President's December 2009 West Point speech was actually just a part of this increase. Between the time the President took office and the end of September 2010, U.S. troop strength tripled, from about 30,000 on Inauguration Day to about 100,000 now.

This buildup was designed to reverse a trend of increasing Taliban political control, especially in Afghanistan's south and eventually in the east. It has indeed reversed that trend, and may create a meaningful prospect for a negotiated settlement of the war on acceptable terms as a result.

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