Reactions to President Obama's Afghan speech last night are all over the lot. This should not surprise. The words emphasize the commitment over the next three and a half years to sharply scale back the level of U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan, but in the short run, there will be more continuity than change in U.S. policy. Even after another fifteen months, U.S. force levels will be close to seventy thousand, approximately two times what they were when the president assumed office.
This pace of drawdown is unnecessarily slow. The United States could and should reduce American troop levels in Afghanistan to, say, twenty-five thousand by 2012 and not wait to do so until the end of 2014. This number would be enough to carry out counterterrorist operations and advise and train local and national Afghan military and police. A greater U.S. military effort would not produce results that would endure or that would be commensurate with the investment, given internal Afghan divisions and the reality that Pakistan will likely continue to provide a sanctuary to the Taliban.
The United States would also be wise to step up its diplomacy, both with the Taliban (to make clear the price it would pay if it were to reestablish ties with terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda) and with regional states, many of whom have a stake in a more stable Afghanistan. Prospects for diplomacy would be improved by emphasizing less those American soldiers to be removed than by underscoring U.S. readiness to maintain a residual force (on the order of ten thousand to twenty-five thousand troops) in Afghanistan for years to come.
The president announced that "it is time to focus on nation-building at home." He is right. This is a strategic investment in our future competitiveness and capacity to lead; it is not isolationist. America must reduce its fiscal deficit, modernize its infrastructure, and improve its schools. The problem is that the latest wrinkle to Afghan policy will postpone the country's ability to do just that.