Tag: withdrawal

Afghanistan: Do We Stay or Do We Go Now?

In the last three years, the United States has tripled the number of troops in Afghanistan, increased the number of drone strikes in neighboring Pakistan, and killed Osama bin Laden—the highest of high-value targets. President Obama has more than enough victories under his belt to stick to his timeline and substantially draw down the number of troops from Afghanistan.

Still, the pace of America’s withdrawal and the size of its residual combat presence, even after his decision Wednesday, will depend on two things: negotiations with the Taliban and political pressure to stay the course. These two factors will feature prominently in the months ahead, as the administration reconfigures the strategy and objectives for winding down the 10-year campaign.

First, although many Afghans endorse engagement with the Taliban, in Washington, even broaching the subject of talks is divisive. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton confirmed that efforts were under way to negotiate with the Taliban; meanwhile, outgoing Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said he believes the Taliban will not engage in serious talks until they are under extreme military pressure. In a way, both are right: a power-sharing arrangement would provide the best hope for sustainable peace, but no treaty, agreement, or contract is self-reinforcing and thus requires some leverage. Either way, constructive, face-to-face talks with senior Taliban leaders will be an intensive process, and one that diplomats and military officials must be prepared to defend publicly. America is not there yet.

The second force that will temper America’s eagerness to withdraw is the power of domestic political pressure. Defense Secretary Gates, Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-SC), House Intelligence Chairman Mike Rogers (R-AL), and a sizeable contingent of Afghanistan hawks in the media decry anything less than a troop-intensive campaign. They endorse slow-paced, graduated troop cuts subject to conditions on the ground, a policy focused on entities other than those that threaten the United States. Dismantling al Qaeda, an outfit already in disarray, calls for counterterrorism, not state-building. This can be done relatively cheaply and with far fewer troops. Moreover, as seen in Yemen and Somalia, the United States can collect actionable intelligence without a large-scale conventional force on the ground.

Whether it is talking with the Taliban on the one hand, or staying the course on the other, the president has political goals, for which there is no clear strategy, and security progress, for which there is no definitive “victory.” Looking back, however, Obama has achieved some of the goals he set out. “Blueprint for Change,” his 2008 presidential campaign literature, states (pdf):

Obama will fight terrorism and protect America with a comprehensive strategy that finishes the fight in Afghanistan, cracks down on the al Qaeda safe-haven in Pakistan, develops new capabilities and international partnerships, engages the world to dry up support for extremism, and reaffirms American values.

To a certain degree, even these goals are ambitious. Instead, he should focus not on what is politically desirable, but what is within America’s ability to accomplish. In this respect, Obama would do well to revisit his December 2009 speech on the war in Afghanistan, when he said:

We’ve failed to appreciate the connection between our national security and our economy. In the wake of an economic crisis, too many of our neighbors and friends are out of work and struggle to pay the bills. Too many Americans are worried about the future facing our children. Meanwhile, competition within the global economy has grown more fierce. So we can’t simply afford to ignore the price of these wars.

He also said:

Indeed, some call for a more dramatic and open-ended escalation of our war effort—one that would commit us to a nation-building project of up to a decade. I reject this course because it sets goals that are beyond what can be achieved at a reasonable cost, and what we need to achieve to secure our interests…America has no interest in fighting an endless war in Afghanistan.

As U.S. forces eventually take a back seat in Afghanistan, Obama should strongly resist any calls that he has not done enough. Arguably, he has gone above and beyond what would have been a more prudent strategy. Now, it is time to come home.

Cross-posted from The National Interest.

President Obama’s Afghan Decision: Previewing the Speech

Tomorrow night, President Obama will announce how many troops will be withdrawn from Afghanistan over the next 18 months. CNN.com reported this morning that the president is expected to announce a plan that would bring all 30,000 “surge” troops home by the end of 2012. This would give them two more fighting seasons in Afghanistan. The Los Angeles Times reported administration and Pentagon officials told them 10,000 troops will leave Afghanistan by the end of this year. In an effort to quell the leaks, White House officials told Fox News that Obama has not made a final decision and that the reporting is “all over the map.”

But we should not allow this speculation over troop numbers to distract us from the bigger picture. Even if by the end of 2012 the size of the U.S. military presence is reduced by 30,000 (and I’m not holding my breath), that would still leave more than twice as many troops as were there in January 2009 when Obama took office.

We won’t know for sure what the president intends until tomorrow. More importantly, we won’t know if the president’s intentions translate into actual troop withdrawals until our brave men and women are welcomed back home. There will always be those arguing that conditions on the ground do not allow for a U.S. withdrawal. Some are making that case with respect to Iraq, a war that was supposedly won by David Petraeus and the surge back in 2008. For the U.S. military, it seems that every war is like the Eagles’ Hotel California: we can check out, but we can never leave.

Regardless of the president’s decision, the mission will not have changed. The military wants more time to put pressure on the Taliban. They believe that they have the Taliban on the run, and that continuing pressure will aid in negotiations on a political settlement. Meanwhile, the true believers of nation-building want to buy more time for the Karzai government to get its act together. They believe that if American troops and aid workers dig more wells, pave more roads, build more schools, and draft more legal standards, we will have achieved our essential goals. The public, and a growing number within the Congress, is skeptical.

And they should be. A nation-building mission is far too ambitious, and far too costly. Most importantly, it isn’t necessary. We could keep pressure on the Taliban, and deny al Qaeda a sanctuary, with perhaps as few as 10,000 troops in Afghanistan. If President Obama rejects that option, and declares instead that more than 60,000 U.S. troops will be in Afghanistan in 2013, he will have bowed to pressure from some within the Pentagon, at State, and a handful of think tankers, and ignored the clear wishes of the American people who want to turn their attention to building the United States, and allow the Afghans to build Afghanistan.

Cross-posted from The National Interest.

A Debate About Troops

The United States will begin drawing down troops in Afghanistan this July. The White House is desperately trying to seize the narrative of the withdrawal claiming that the cuts will be “real” even as Defense Secretary Robert Gates is arguing for the opposite.

This week, the New York Times revealed that some in President Obama’s national security team are seeking steeper reductions, particularly after the death of Osama bin Laden and the increasing costs of the war.

Steeper reductions are certainly warranted. A limited counterrorism mission must be on the table.

The president will try to claim credit for keeping his pledge to reduce the U.S. troop presence, but when we consider that there are three times as many troops in Afghanistan today compared to when Obama took office, a reduction of 3,000-5,000 (out of the roughly 100,000 U.S. troops there) won’t mean much.

Another fold in the Times story is that Secretary Gates and top military commanders in the field are arguing for gradual cuts—not steep reductions. Let’s remember last summer’s Rolling Stone article that profiled the now retired four-star U.S. Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal. He was asked to leave because he made comments that undermined civilian control of the military. Today, albeit in a far less severe manner, military commanders are walking the line of advocating a direction in policy that is at odds with civilians officials.

This underscores a far deeper problem with military policymaking: who controls what exactly?

What Obama decides on for reduction in groundtroops—a token withdrawal or steeper cuts—will partly reflect how confused the Constitutional roles and chain of command has become in the conduct of war.

Cross-posted from The National Interest.