President Obama’s announcement that half of the 66,000 US troops now in Afghanistan would be pulled out over the next year is not as bad as it could have been. He could have announced that the 34,000 troops would be pulled out by September—just as he had previously set a deadline of September 2012 to pull out roughly the same number of surge forces. This would have been especially unfortunate because September is still part of the “fighting season” in Afghanistan and taking them off the battlefield at this time cedes an important advantage to the enemy.
That is not what Obama did, however: He backloaded the withdrawal, with only 6,000 troops coming out by the end of May, another 8,000 by the end of November, and the remaining 20,000 in February 2014. That at least gives Gen. Joe Dunford, the new US/NATO commander in Kabul, the majority of the existing forces to work with during the 2013 fighting season, even if it does mean that US forces will be so denuded by April 2014 that they will have a hard time securing the presidential election which is scheduled to be held then—and which could prove of great importance to Afghanistan’s long-term stability.
A corrupt, illegitimate election would undermine the country’s long-term prospects, while a free and fair vote resulting in the election of a strong and honest leader could be the salvation of Afghanistan. Unfortunately the U.S. will be hard-put to guarantee the election but at least there is one more fighting season to try to solidify recent gains and to give a boost to the Afghan National Security Forces.
There are sharp limits, however, to what U.S. troops can achieve in the next year, especially because they are increasingly confined to base and cut off from everyday interactions with their Afghan counterparts by concerns about “friendly fire” attacks. American troops have never carried out the kind of “clear and hold” operations in eastern Afghanistan that they mounted in the south, and now they never will: Thus the bulk of U.S. forces will pull out with the Haqqani Network still enjoying secure sanctuaries an hour’s drive from Kabul.
That makes it all the more imperative that the U.S. maintain a robust commitment in Afghanistan post-2014 to enable the Afghan security forces to cope with the threat presented by a still-dangerous insurgency with secure sanctuaries in Pakistan. Obama did not announce post-2014 troop figures last night because the debate over what they will be is apparently still ongoing. It is a little surreal to read in the Washington Post that generals and senior officials are debating troop figures not only for 2015, but also for 2016, 2017, and beyond.
The Post reports that “the Pentagon is pushing a plan that would keep about 8,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan once the NATO military mission there ends in 2014,” while some of “the proposals under consideration call for reducing the U.S. presence by early 2016 to between 3,500 and 6,000 troops” and “one option under serious discussion envisages further reducing troop levels to under 1,000 by early 2017, with most of the personnel operating from the giant U.S. Embassy in Kabul.”
Why is this surreal? Because no one—not Napoleon, not Alexander the Great, not the Duke of Wellington, and certainly not President Obama—could possibly predict what a war will look like four years into the future. The battlefield is a dynamic environment where things can change markedly in a matter of months. It is the height of folly to lock the U.S. military into ironclad plans today governing troop commitments years from now. Those kinds of decisions should be made much closer to the fact based on battlefield considerations—not on domestic political concerns.
Yet not only is the White House apparently contemplating keeping far fewer forces after 2014 than Gen. John Allen, the recently departed US commander, had judged prudent (he wanted 20,000) but it is also considering telegraphing in advance even steeper reductions. This can only embolden the Taliban whose mantra is “you have the watches, we have the time.” They are already convinced they can wait us out. Obama’s timetable for withdrawal, based on arbitrary numbers divorced from military realities, will only heighten that perception and make it even more difficult for the remaining U.S. troops to achieve anything meaningful.