The Obama administration seems to think it can stop American combat operations a year earlier than expected—in 2013—while also downsizing the Afghan Security Forces and still strike a peace deal with the Taliban. Only in some alternative universe is this a winning strategy. In the world we actually inhabit it is a recipe for a slow-motion—or maybe not so slow—catastrophe.
It is hard to know exactly what the announcement that the U.S. is ending combat operations in 2013 means because the dividing line between “combat” and “advising” can be thin to the point of non-existent. But at the very least it signals some pull back of the American commitment. And before long I suspect we are going to hear that the number of U.S. troops—already insufficient—will be cut back some more so as to allow President Obama to run for reelection claiming to have ended one war and to be on his way to ending another. The Afghan Security Forces will be hard-pressed to pick up the slack, because they will need extensive training and support for years to come. The only way they will have any chance of success is if the U.S. maintains a substantial force in Afghanistan after 2014—say at least 40,000 troops. But that is highly unlikely if Obama stays in office. He seems determined to downsize as fast as possible.
The specifics of the downsizing matter less than the signal it sends—a signal of American irresolution. Already housing prices are falling in Kabul and Afghans who are able to do so are moving their assets offshore. Meanwhile, Taliban fighters interrogated by the coalition are confident of victory after 2014. In this climate there is little to no chance peace talks will succeed at doing anything except providing a Nixonian fig leaf covering the American abandonment of an embattled ally.
Obama may claim he is ending the war, but he is actually widening it by making much more likely a resumption of the large-scale civil war that tore Afghanistan apart and led to the rise of the Taliban, which, for all the mindless chatter about their supposed “moderation,” remains as closely linked as ever to al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups.
Having begun his administration with a buildup in Afghanistan, the president is now busy dismantling that strategy and substituting for it—what? A policy of hope and sleight-of-hand whose bankruptcy is likely to be brutally revealed in the unforgiving terrain of Afghanistan and Pakistan.