It is dismaying but hardly surprising to read on the front page of the New York Times today that the “Obama administration is discussing whether to reduce American forces in Afghanistan by at least an additional 20,000 troops by 2013, reflecting a growing belief within the White House that the mission there has now reached the point of diminishing returns.” If this article is to be believed–and I have no reason to doubt it: it is a typical Washington trial balloon that no doubt reflects actual options under consideration even if it doesn’t give a complete picture of the deliberations and likely course of action–the key difference in the White House is between Tom Donilon, the national security adviser, who wants to pull out “only” 20,000 troops by June 2013 and Vice President Biden, who of course, would like to pull out far more.
The view of our veteran representatives in Kabul–General John Allen and Ambassador Ryan Crocker–is rather different. They have made clear they need to keep at least 68,000 troops in Afghanistan, the level which the U.S. force will reach in September after the current drawdown is done, at least through the end of the next campaigning season in 2013–meaning until the end of 2013. But what do their views matter? They’re only the men on the front lines having to cope with a potent insurgency that threatens American interests. The White House has its own calculations which, one suspects, are guided less by the imperatives on the ground and more by the imperative to tell the voters prior to the November election that this president ended one war in Iraq and is ending another in Afghanistan. Certainly the views of our military commanders counted for little last summer when President Obama made the decision to pull out 33,000 surge troops faster than General David Petraeus had recommended–and Petraeus, keep in mind, has considerably greater influence in Washington than does his impressive but lower profile successor, General Allen. If the administration felt free to ignore Petraeus’s advice, there is is scant cause to think it will listen more carefully to Allen, who no doubt has told policymakers that drastic drawdowns imperil his ability to leave a stable Afghanistan behind by 2014.
That, incidentally, was initially agreed upon as a deadline for transitioning lead security responsibility to Afghan forces but seems to have been transformed into a deadline for pulling most NATO forces out altogether, leaving the Afghans more or less on their own. Oh, and at the same time, it is probable the the U.S. will reduce funding for the Afghan Security Forces, forcing a considerable reduction in their ranks and further imperiling their ability to grapple on their own with an insurgency with safe havens in Pakistan.
It is little wonder under such circumstances that support for the war effort is falling precipitously among Republicans. Newt Gingrich has already said that we should leave because victory is unobtainable under current conditions; Rick Santorum seems to be moving in the same direction. Mitt Romney, the likely nominee, remains stalwart, but Republican voters, who have been staunchly supportive of the war effort for years, are now evenly split over whether the war is worth fighting and doubts are evident among Republican lawmakers in Washington. More and more Republicans no doubt figure that, if President Obama isn’t serious about winning the war, then why risk more American lives?
It is an understandable impulse and one that the White House will find itself increasingly unable to dispel because it seems more determined to leave than to attain an acceptable outcome. This scuttle for the exits is covered in fig-leafs labeled “Special Operations,” “advisory teams,” and “peace talks.” But none of these options can possibly succeed if we pull out the bulk of our troops before they have done more to stabilize the south and east where the Taliban and Haqqani Network are the strongest–and that now appears to be all but certain.