President Barack Obama on June 22 announced a plan to withdraw thirty-three thousand troops from Afghanistan by September 2012. The president said gains in the U.S. troop surge of the past eighteen months make a drawdown to seventy thousand appropriate. He added: "It’s time to start nation-building here at home." But his comments have ignited debate over the scope and purpose of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan. CFR President Richard N. Haass says Obama was right to note the need to focus resources on domestic problems. He says the president should pursue a more sweeping troop drawdown that focuses a residual force of about twenty-five thousand on counterterrorist operations. CFR Senior Fellow Max Boot says the drawdown signals a U.S. retreat from a battlefield it has fought so hard to secure. The troop shift heightens the difficulty in securing the east and south of the country against far-from-defeated Taliban forces, he says.
It is hard--no, impossible--to see any strategic or military reason why President Barack Obama would decide to remove thirty thousand surge troops from Afghanistan by September 2012.
The full surge force only arrived in late fall of 2010. Since then, the troops have done yeoman work in securing the southern Helmand and Kandahar provinces, where the Taliban was born and which it has long dominated. But, as the military likes to say, those gains are "fragile and reversible." They are also incomplete.
Obama, recall, sent the bare minimum number of reinforcements requested by General Stanley McChrystal. Fifty thousand more troops would have given commanders in Afghanistan far more flexibility and margin for error. With only thirty thousand extra troops, bringing the total U.S. troop presence to one hundred thousand, NATO commanders had to economize in numerous areas to achieve critical momentum in the south.
Regional Command East--the vast, mountainous region between Kabul and Pakistan where the Haqqani Network, the Taliban, the Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin, and al-Qaeda have their strongholds--never received enough personnel to carry out the kind of manpower-intensive security measures that have been implemented in Helmand and Kandahar. The expectation of General David Petraeus had been that, having secured the south in 2011, he would then shift his focus to the east and secure that too in 2012 and 2013. This would have prepared the way for transition to Afghan control in 2014 as agreed at the NATO summit in Lisbon last fall.
Now all those carefully orchestrated plans made by Obama’s hand-picked commanders have been cast into serious doubt by his decision to pull out a third of U.S. troops while the summer 2012 campaigning season is still underway. Not only will this make it much more difficult, if not impossible, to secure eastern Afghanistan; it will make it hard to hold on to gains in the south.
It will also make it difficult to continue growing the Afghan Security Forces because newly trained police and soldiers require close mentoring by coalition forces. There will now be fewer foreign military personnel capable of doing that.
It is not just a matter of a third fewer American forces. By signaling retreat, Obama has also given the green light for U.S. allies to scuttle out as well. The day after his speech, President Nicolas Sarkozy said he will begin pulling French troops out as well.
It is possible that Obama’s announcement will set off a precipitous loss of confidence in the war effort not only on the part of Americans and our allies but also in Afghanistan itself where Washington risks forfeiting the operational momentum that U.S. troops have fought so hard to regain over the past year. If that is the case, the political advantage that Obama no doubt hopes to derive from his announcement will prove illusory.
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.