Last week, US President Barack Obama announced that he would withdraw 10,000 troops this year from Afghanistan, and 23,000 more by the end of summer in 2012. While the speedy pullout is not as catastrophic as doomsayers suggest and the overall strategy remains the same, it nonetheless makes a challenging task even more difficult.
To some degree, Mr. Obama’s timetable is hardly surprising. Since he first took office, he has wavered back and forth between doing what the realities on the ground demand and what America can afford. And, as with the limited surge into Afghanistan he authorized last year, he has once again ended up somewhere in between where popular sentiment lies and what his generals advocated. The fact that a majority of Americans oppose the US involvement there (which amounts to over $100 billion a year) amid spiralling debt and high unemployment at home so close to his re-election obviously featured prominently in his mind, and understandably so.
But, as others have pointed out, there is also growing evidence that the US military strategy in Afghanistan is working to a certain extent, and that its modest goal – an Afghan government with the capacity to control a large part of its territory with little international assistance – is still achievable. The strategy from 2011-2014, roughly speaking, centers around first consolidating gains in the south in 2011, then increasing the turnover of responsibility to Afghan security forces in that region and boosting efforts in the east in 2012, and, finally, once the insurgency weakens substantially in 2013 and 2014, accelerating troop withdrawals. Of course, the strategy will be pursued alongside other dimensions such as economic development and political reconciliation efforts with the Taliban.
It is easy to be pessimistic about Afghanistan, and many are quick to point out the negatives, such as Afghan president Hamid Karzai’s inept and corrupt regime and America’s increasingly fraught relationship with Pakistan. But the military strategy in the south has shown good results – in terms of security, political development, education and the involvement of Afghan security forces. The logic of counterinsurgency: that ensuring the safety of the population first can then lead to civilian and political gains later, has largely held true. If these gains can be solidified and the ‘clear, hold, build’ strategy is replicated in the east, that could at least put Afghan forces in control of a significant parts of its territory and thwart a potential Taliban takeover.
While there are no guarantees that this strategy will work over the next few years, the goal is extremely modest and the implementation has proven effective thus far. Doing it right will no doubt mean more blood and treasure. But that needs to be weighed against the cost of defeat – which could involve Taliban takeover of large parts of Afghanistan and the re-emergence of a sanctuary to either attack America at home or undermine its interests abroad in a region rife with rivalry, extremism, and nuclear weapons. To be clear, no one expects Washington to occupy every country where terrorists roam; the objective is to help shape an environment in Afghanistan where the security forces are able to independently avert the return of a brutal group that endangers US interests. In other words, not nation-building, but preventing national collapse.
Mr. Obama’s current withdrawal plan makes accomplishing this task, which had a reasonable chance of success, significantly more difficult both in terms of numbers and timing. In terms of numbers, as Michael O’Hanlon at the Brookings Institution has pointed out, it will require taking at least one of two key risks: either reducing US and NATO presence in the south and making Afghan forces do more than they are capable of, which could lead to more Taliban counterattacks; or reducing the troop build-up in the east, which would provide the insurgents with sanctuaries from which to launch future attacks. Those risks, however, could be amplified further if some coalition partners follow suit and draw down their forces as well.
The timing of the withdrawal is also important: if the drawdown must occur by the end of summer 2012, a third of American troops will not be able to stay through the critical “fighting season” of that year, in contrast to the plan favoured by Mr. Obama’s military commanders. Withdrawals during this time of the year might help Mr. Obama win an election, but could undercut US chances of averting defeat in Afghanistan. Additionally, if he adheres to his troop drawdown plan with little regard for conditions on the ground, that could adversely affect his chances in other realms – such as political reconciliation with the Taliban. Insurgents are less likely to negotiate when they feel they have the upper hand, or if they perceive that America’s grip is weakening significantly.
Yet, all is not lost. Mr. Obama still has control over which type of forces he can choose to withdraw, and he could try to push the troop withdrawal from the end of summer 2012 to the end of the year, so that most US troops will still be there during the fighting season. But all that assumes he will let ground realities take precedence over political calculations during an election year. Given what we have seen so far, that might not be the best bet.