President Barack Obama announced on Wednesday evening that he was withdrawing 10,000 troops from Afghanistan by the end of the year and a total of 33,000 troops by the end of 2012. In short, the president has opted to leave the job in Afghanistan half finished because of political expediency and war weariness on the part of the American voter.
Saying, “[I]t is time to focus on nation building at home,” the president stated that the death of Osama bin Laden made the withdrawal possible and budget pressures in Congress made ending our commitment to Afghanistan’s security a necessity. There is also the matter of the president’s re-election that most analysts believe played a large role in the decision.
“We will not try to make Afghanistan a perfect place. We will not police its streets or patrol its mountains indefinitely,” said Obama. It is a sentiment echoed on Capitol Hill by members of both parties, and political activists on the left and right. Some Republicans disagreed with the president, but even many GOP presidential candidates tread softly in their responses.
Obama’s decision – delivered in a 13 minute speech in the East Room of the White House – was in direct opposition to what the vast majority of his military commanders had recommended. What the president referred to as a “commitment” to “refocus on al Qaeda” and “reverse the Taliban’s momentum” has, by most objective standards, been only partially met. And by withdrawing combat forces while the security situation is still unstable in key parts of the country, the president is gambling that the Afghan army and police can step up and perform up to expectations – something they have failed to do up to this point.
Even though analysts expect that the initial drawdown will include mostly engineers and support personnel, commanders in Afghanistan and the Pentagon were recommending a much smaller withdrawal of forces. They fear that the hard-won gains of the last 2 years in southern Afghanistan, where US forces successfully pushed the Taliban out of several key areas, would be lost if too many combat troops were to leave.
The Taliban chooses the summer months to mount its offensives, and the extra troops provided by the surge were able to confront and defeat them, especially in the provinces of Kandahar and Helmand. Because the Taliban had been largely cleared from those areas, Afghanistan Commander General David Petreaus argued that withdrawing the surge troops so precipitously did not give the military time to consolidate the gains made on the battlefield. The fear now is that the Afghan army is simply not ready to take over security responsibilities in those areas cleared by the US military, inviting the Taliban to regroup and re-occupy them once the Americans have left.
Petreaus refused to endorse the president’s withdrawal plan, and outgoing Secretary of Defense Robert Gates only reluctantly backed it. On the other side of the debate, Vice President Joe Biden emerged victorious as he and several key national security aides had been arguing since the decision to initiate the surge in Afghanistan in 2009 that a smaller force was needed. The argument between the two factions was over implementing a counterinsurgency strategy favored by Petreaus or a counterterrorism strategy advocated by the vice president. The president has now opted to back the Biden plan by withdrawing most American combat forces by 2014.
Jeffrey Dressler, a military analyst at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington, explained the military’s reluctance for the large withdrawal ordered by the president. “[T]he fact is that the conditions on the ground don’t merit any sort of withdrawal – it’s not time to be pulling out a substantive amount of troops,” he said. Dressler pointed out that while substantial progress had been made in the south, eastern Afghanistan along the Pakistani border was still a trouble spot, and withdrawing troops would not improve the situation.
Indeed, the president seemed to indicate that the focus of American efforts against al-Qaeda would now be concentrated in Pakistan. After lauding the Pakistanis for their counterterrorism efforts, the president said, “No country is more endangered by the presence of violent extremists, which is why we will continue to press Pakistan to expand its participation in securing a more peaceful future for this war-torn region.” The president said that he would hold the Pakistanis to their commitments to fight terrorists and would not tolerate “any safe-haven for those who aim to kill us.”
The president’s decision was made against the political backdrop of a re-election campaign and a battle in Congress over the deficit. His call to cut another $400 billion from the defense budget over the next 10 years, in addition to the $78 billion already slashed by Secretary Gates, will be an easier pill to swallow if the $120 billion a year we are currently spending on the Afghanistan war alone were to be substantially reduced. The cost of the war in Afghanistan surpassed spending for the Iraq war for the first time in 2010 after money earmarked for Afghanistan skyrocketed when Obama took office.
But clearly, the overriding reason for the faster pace of withdrawal than that recommended by military commanders is due to the genuine war weariness of the American people, and the political calculation that bringing the troops home at an accelerated pace will help the president win votes in 2012. A Pew poll out this week showed that 56% of Americans favored bring the troops home “as soon as possible.” This reflects a 16-point rise in that number since June of 2010. A similar rise in support for a quick withdrawal was seen in a CBS poll from earlier this month where 64% of respondents were in favor of the troops leaving Afghanistan.
The president’s Republican rivals have responded cautiously, arguing that any withdrawal must be measured against the situation on the ground. But it is unlikely they will criticize the president too heavily for doing essentially what most of them have been arguing for these past months on the campaign trail.
There were scattered voices of opposition. Senator Lindsey Graham said, “We’ve undercut a strategy that was working. I think the 10,000 troops leaving this year is going to make this fighting season more difficult.” Presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty broke with most of his fellow Oval Office aspirants, saying, “When America goes to war, America needs to win. We need to close out the war successfully.” Pawlenty urged the president to follow the advice of General Petreaus and “get those [Afghanistan] security forces built up where they can pick up the slack as we draw down.”
And House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers bluntly accused the president of making the withdrawals because of politics. “It seems the President is trying to find a political solution with a military component to it, when it needs to be the other way around,” wrote Rogers.
In the end, the arguments made by Petreaus and his Afghan commanders were overridden by political and budgetary considerations. The notion that it is folly to base important military decisions on how politically popular the move might be, or how much money it will cost, has fallen on deaf ears in the White House.
It may very well be that the mission to change the nature of Afghanistan’s society and economy was doomed from the start, and that despite the heroic efforts of our military, the job of creating a functional nation out of the disparate collection of tribes and clans in Afghanistan proved to be a noble, but ultimately unsuccessful experiment in nation building. The more paramount objective has always been ensuring that Afghanistan sands do not becomes the fertile soil of militant jihadism. This mission was never doomed, but now we must hope that it has not been lost.