Suffering From a Case of Afghan Withdrawal

Edward Kenney
Afghanistan Study Group Blogger

Nancy Youssef from McClatchy News has just produced a real head-scratcher of an article writing that the administration is walking back from its commitments to begin withdrawing troops in July 2011.   Some of the highlights from the McClatchy Piece:

The new policy will be on display next week during a conference of NATO countries in Lisbon, Portugal, where the administration hopes to introduce a timeline that calls for the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces from Afghanistan by 2014, the year when Afghan President Hamid Karzai once said Afghan troops could provide their own security

The original plan, as I understand it, was to begin a phased withdrawal starting in July 2011—with the pace of the withdrawal to be “conditions based.”  From this paragraph it is not clear whether the administration is proposing a complete withdrawal by 2014, a move which would actually impose a tighter timeline on the administration.  If I were being charitable to the Obama administration, I would argue it is attempting a two-step:  With one hand they are delaying drawdown next summer, with the other hand, presenting a more detailed plan for a complete withdrawal.   If this is indeed the strategy, it is a risky one.  By their own admission, conditions in Afghanistan are “unlikely to allow a speedy withdrawal.”  The U.S. cannot afford to continue waffling on its commitments, lest it lose what little credibility it has with Afghan people.  Reneging on the July deadline will also likely have adverse political effects given that war is already very unpopular.

One factor that could improve conditions in Afghanistan and facilitate a speedier withdrawal would be an effort to reconcile Pakistani backed insurgents with the Karzai government.  Here again is the McClatchy piece:

Another official said the administration also realized in contacts with Pakistani officials that the Pakistanis had concluded wrongly that July 2011 would mark the beginning of the end of U.S. military operations in Afghanistan.  That perception, one Pentagon adviser said, has convinced Pakistan’s military — which is key to preventing Taliban sympathizers from infiltrating Afghanistan — to continue to press for a political settlement instead of military action.

Pakistan thought that just because Obama ordered troops to begin withdrawing, military operations would soon end.

It might be useful here to go over the rationale for setting a date to begin withdrawal.  The three reasons to set a timeline are:

1. To signal to both the Afghan public and the U.S. public that U.S. does not have an open-ended commitment to Afghanistan.  Ideally this will promote public support in the U.S. for the war while diluting one of the strongest rationale for war:  that Afghans are fighting a foreign occupation.

2. To pressure the Afghan government into providing security to the Afghan people.

3.  To pressure Karzai into reaching a political settlement with the insurgents

Point three is arguably the most important, especially since the development of a capable Afghan security force is, according to Robert Gates, several years away.  If the U.S. is perceived to have an open-ended commitment with Karzai, what incentive is there to negotiate?  This is literally the whole point about using timelines to leverage the Afghan government.  Now, we hear from Pentagon officials that timelines are no good because Pakistan might try to push for a political settlement.  As Robert Naiman from Just Foreign Policy puts it:

What is striking about this is that the Pentagon is explicitly saying that from the Pentagon’s point of view, a political settlement must be prevented and therefore the timetable to begin withdrawal is bad because it was pushing forward prospects for a political settlement.

It’s not shocking that Pentagon officials think this; it’s shocking that they say it openly. It imitates Robert Mankoff ‘s recent New Yorker cartoon in which a general says:

“Well, I’m an optimist – I still think peace can be avoided.”

Naiman also takes down the “blame the Republicans” argument presented in the McClatchy article.  Yes, the republican takeover of congress was a setback for those in favor of ending the war, but the new chairman of the House Armed Services Committee was quoted by Reuters as saying he would leave the July deadline in place:

Reuters: But the actual deadline itself, you’re not going to press for that to be changed?     McKeon: No. I think that’s installed.

This makes sense intuitively.  Changing a timetable that has been set by the president makes the U.S. look either weak or untrustworthy.  Either way, such a move will not help the war effort.

The question of setting a public timeline is complicated and intelligent people can disagree.  One drawback to having an open commitment to withdraw is that it disincentivizes negotiation for the insurgents who can “wait it out.”  Furthermore, having a troop presence in Afghanistan is one of the few cards the U.S. holds; some analysts have argued that we should try to exact some concessions from the Taliban before agreeing to drawdown.

On the flip side, the U.S. is operating under several constraints, from budgetary costs to low public opinion, which are unlikely to permit a long-term troop presence.  The insurgents are presumably well aware of these constraints, so by declaring a timeline the U.S. is perhaps not giving up too much.

Both views on timelines miss a broader point however: the military strategy aimed at securing population centers and bringing governance to the provinces is flawed.  The government is hopelessly corrupt, U.S. forces are seen as foreign invaders, and the Taliban can recruit at will from the Pashtun belt and escape into Pakistani sanctuaries in the event of military setbacks.  Continuing with the current strategy does not solve core national security issues such as al Qaeda (who are not in Afghanistan) and Pakistani stability (which, if anything, has worsened as a result of the Afghan war).  If ever there was a time for a fundamental rethinking of a war strategy, now is that time.

Perhaps the most troubling passage in the McClatchy article is this one:

What a year ago had been touted as an extensive December review of the strategy now also will be less expansive and will offer no major changes in strategy…”

The president needs to rethink the Afghan strategy and pursue a real peace process; he must take advantage of the December Review and at the very least, get the Pentagon on the same page.

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