I've spent the last few days tussling with friend and foe alike over President Obama's decision to withdraw 33,000 U.S. surge troops in a year's time. I know any sort of middle ground will unhinge lefties and righties both, but don't despair. To Democrats who think the withdrawal number is too small and that the world will end, I tell them to see a psychiatrist. To neoconservatives who think it's too large and the world will end, I also recommend psychiatric care. As much as I'd like to see Obama announce a plan now to reduce U.S. forces to less than 20,000 in two years, such a timetable insults the U.S. military and generates too many uncertainties too soon. And though neocons are balmy to imagine that large-scale U.S. combat forces can or should stay in Afghanistan indefinitely, they're correct that Washington can't sensibly extricate itself from a war without a convincing strategy, which Obama neglected in his speech on Wednesday night.
Having staked out the middle ground on the 33,000 decision, let me tell you what I really think. I think the theme of President Obama's speech should have been "Mission Accomplished." He walked up to that door, but didn't open it dramatically and directly. Unlike Bush's famous "Mission Accomplished" proclamation, this one is essentially true. Obama pointed to the fact that U.S. troops have killed 20 of 30 al Qaeda leaders in the past year alone, including Osama bin Laden, but he could have said a lot more. His own White House aides surely told him, as they told me, that al Qaeda members in Afghanistan "number in the tens." Let me repeat that: not in the hundreds or the thousands, but in the tens. And beating them down to this pulp was the main mission of U.S. forces. Besides, the White House aides surely told their president that Taliban forces in Afghanistan now number between 20,000 and 40,000. (One might have hoped that our intelligence analysts could have been somewhat more precise about this figure.) Even 40,000 is a tiny total when compared to the 200,000 or so friendly Afghans now under arms and the millions of Afghans who purportedly are on our side and hate the Taliban. Obama could have said, accurately, that the U.S. military has already done a great job in bringing the enemy down to levels that should be manageable by friendly Afghans. He also could have said that if the Afghans, with all our support—indeed with all our prospective support—can't cope with 20,000 to 40,000 Taliban, then only heaven can help them. This is not some rhetorical gamesmanship; it is a straightforward statement of the facts.