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Floating a trial balloon for the White House, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced last week that the Obama administration is planning to speed up its withdrawal timetable in Afghanistan. “By mid- to the latter part of 2013, we’ll be able to make a transition from a combat role to a training, advise and assist role,” Panetta said. That would be a year earlier than what the Obama administration had initially proposed.
This should come as no surprise. In fact, it’s exactly what President Obama has been pushing for, itching for, advocating, from the very beginning of his administration.
Recall that in 2009, after a lengthy re-review of his own policy, the president concluded that “it is in our vital national interest to send an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan,” before promising that “after 18 months, our troops will begin to come home.”
That announcement raised red flags for many observers.
First, the notion that “our vital national interest” somehow has an expiration date was nothing short of bizarre.
Second, the much-ballyhooed surge of 30,000 troops was less than what the generals asked for—Gen. Stanley McChrystal wanted 40,000—and arguably never had the full impact it was designed to have. In fact, the White House was trying to get the military to accede to a faster draw-down—and arguably shorter withdrawal timetable—last July.
As Defense News reported at the time, then-Defense Secretary Gates was “sparring at a distance with White House aides who are pushing for a faster draw-down of the 100,000-strong U.S. force.” Indeed, after the killing of Osama bin Laden in May 2011, the president declared that “it’s now time for us to recognize that we’ve accomplished a big chunk of our mission and that it’s time for Afghans to take more responsibility.” He then ordered the withdrawal of 33,000 troops by summer 2012. Again, the military advocated a more modest reduction of between 5,000 and 10,000 troops.
Third, letting the Taliban know when the U.S. military would end its offensive only made the mission harder—and the Taliban less open to some sort of settlement.
That helps explain why a leaked U.S. military report, based on interviews of Taliban prisoners, concludes that:
“Taliban commanders, along with rank and file members, increasingly believe their control of Afghanistan is inevitable. Though the Taliban suffered severely in 2011, its strength, motivation, funding and tactical proficiency remains intact…they see little hope for a negotiated peace. Despite numerous tactical setbacks, surrender is far from their collective mindset.”
Regrettably, it seems the very opposite mindset is at work in Washington.
To be sure, the American people and their military should not be expected to sacrifice more for Afghanistan than the Afghan people are themselves willing to sacrifice. Moreover, it is the president’s responsibility to determine and then to do what is in America’s national interest—not what is in Hamid Karzai’s interest. In other words, sometimes the wisest, most just, most appropriate decision a president can make is to pull back and turn away.
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