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Obstacles to Leaving Afghanistan: Shifting to a Slow-Motion Departure

Author: Micah Zenko, Senior Fellow
December 16, 2010
New York Times


Afghanistan is a war of compromise. Even as each eagerly awaited policy review drives the news cycle, the political and military situation in Afghanistan is too complex and unpredictable to distill into sound bite-ready pronouncements.

Indeed, every new deadline is followed by a string of caveats that render the initial statement almost meaningless. Take, for example, President Obama's West Point speech in December 2009, which announced the results of his administration's second review of the U.S. war in Afghanistan. He called for an additional 30,000 troop deployment to support a “core goal” to “disrupt, dismantle, and defeat Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan and to prevent its capacity to threaten America and our allies in the future.” The president also said the United States would begin to withdraw from Afghanistan in July 2011.

But almost as soon as he put forward a timeline, the administration began equivocating. The president's top foreign policy advisers reassured the public that 2011 would only represent the beginning of a withdrawal. In the words of Secretary Gates five days after West Point speech, U.S. troops “are not leaving in July of 2011. Some, handful, or some small number, or whatever the conditions permit, will begin to withdraw at that time.”

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