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Obama’s Choice in Afghanistan

If the Wall Street Journal is to be believed, U.S. military commanders are telling President Obama that he should leave either 10,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan after 2014 or none at all. This seems like wise advice given the president’s proven predilection for splitting the difference–and for providing only the barest of bare bones necessary to carry out a strategy. For example, when he ordered the initial surge of forces into Afghanistan in 2009, he sent 30,000 troops, not the 40,000 that Gen. Stanley McChrystal had asked for, and imposed a time limit that hindered their mission.

For months, the White House has been leaking that no more than 8,000 U.S. troops would remain in Afghanistan past 2014–and possibly quite a few fewer. The military is right to warn that at a certain level, U.S. forces cannot sustain or defend themselves or their colleagues in the State Department and intelligence agencies. A handful of commandos cannot drop out of the sky and operate successfully–they need an infrastructure in place to support them. Same goes for military trainers, advisers, diplomats, and spies. 

So to that extent the military’s advice is on the money–although it is certain to be unwelcome in the White House which has long had a neuralgic reaction to leaks of force recommendations which Obama believes (perhaps rightly) are an attempt to “box him in” by the armed forces. 

But for an outside analyst what is troubling about the Journal report is not the troop figure recommendation. It is, rather, that the military is supposedly telling Obama, as a sweetener, that the entire force can be withdrawn by the time he leaves office–i.e., by early 2017. 

It is hard to imagine how any responsible commander could so recommend at this point–i.e., in early 2014–so perhaps the report is inaccurate. I hope so, because it is simply impossible to know now what Afghanistan will look like in 2017. Perhaps Afghan forces will have made so much progress by then that they will no longer need much American support. That is certainly what everyone, including me, hopes. But it’s not likely to happen given the extreme poverty of Afghanistan and the size of the security challenge it faces from an undefeated Taliban insurgency.

If history has taught anything, it is that premature pullouts of U.S. forces can sacrifice all that they have fought so hard to achieve. See, most recently, Iraq. Or before that, Haiti, Somalia, Vietnam, post-World War I Europe… the list is a long one of squandered opportunities. Whereas if U.S. forces stay for the long-term, near-miraculous progress is possible. See Germany, Japan, Italy, the former Yugoslavia, South Korea, and other examples.

It is certainly possible, even probable, that U.S. forces in Afghanistan will be able to responsibly draw down over the years. But any such withdrawal should be based on realities on the ground–not on an artificial desire to give President Obama a political coup by announcing the “end” of the Afghan War before the end of his term of office. We’ve seen in Iraq that a similar impulse led to more war, not less. The same danger looms in Afghanistan.