The numbers are in. Washington finally announced on Wednesday that 10,000 U.S. troops will be withdrawn from Afghanistan before the end of this year, followed by another 23,000 by the summer of 2012. In his address, President Barack Obama was expected to lay out a clear timetable for the drawdown after nearly a decade of fighting. In 2009, he promised to pull out 100,000 troops, yet Wednesday’s announcement makes it clear that the administration’s plan for withdrawal will be far more cautious than once maintained.
Slamming the door behind them
In fact, two troop withdrawals are taking place in Afghanistan simultaneously under two different commands operating in parallel: U.S. troops and the U.S.-led ISAF contingent, a NATO force that includes European servicemen.
The latter is also leaving and gradually transferring its security mission to the Afghans in a process that began on June 22.
Reports from an RIA Novosti correspondent in Kabul make it clear that despite serious internal security risks, the Afghans have no intention of keeping foreign troops of their own accord. Perhaps they will thank NATO as the door slams behind them. But it will be far more interesting to see how this troop drawdown is viewed in the United States. There are many indications of the direction America may be heading over the next few years, and it may not be too happy with where it ends up.
“Hand the country over to the Taliban military… Excuse me, the Afghan military”
Previously, the war was largely perceived according to a strict party line. There was a cadre of energetic Republicans who started wars in the Middle East and threatened to follow suit in the rest of the world during the eight-year tenure of the Bush administration. And then there were the naive and kindhearted Democrats whose only dream was to put an end to these conflicts.
Now things appear almost in reverse, or are at least much more complicated. Last week, the Republicans held debates among their presidential nominees in New Hampshire, and not one of them called for a victory.
Republican front-runner Mitt Romney said: “It’s time for us to bring our troops home as soon as we possibly can, consistent with the word that comes from our generals that we can hand the country over to the Taliban military in a way that they’re able to defend themselves. Excuse me, the Afghan military to defend themselves from the Taliban. That’s an important distinction.”
At least Romney understands that the distinction is important. But another candidate, Ron Paul, said that Americans should worry about their own borders rather than “secure the border between Iraq and Afghanistan.” He was later told that the two countries do not in fact share a border and are separated by Iran, another point of U.S. strategic interest, but these petty details don’t seem to bother Republicans or their voters. After all, who cares about other people’s borders?
There are also distinctions between Democrats and Republicans. According to recent polls, 89% of Democratic supporters would like to see a substantial troop withdrawal from Afghanistan this summer. The figure for Republican voters is a mere 59%. But is that difference really significant?
There are those on the far right like Senator John McCain, who advised Obama to withdraw no more than 3,000 troops from Afghanistan this year in what would essentially be a purely symbolic gesture. Meanwhile, those who want to pull out 100,000 troops tomorrow have become the majority. This, for instance, is the position of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. At their recent conference in Baltimore, they suggested spending $112 billion not on Afghanistan this year but on job creation in the United States.
Significantly, the focus of the debate has shifted to money rather than human loss. Under Obama, there were 684 deaths in Afghanistan, which, for the public, is apparently an acceptable figure. The flow of losses experienced under the Bush administration is slowing to a trickle. But $10 billion per month seems like quite a considerable price tag. In Vietnam, the opposite was true of the motives behind public protest…
Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen writes: “Staying in Afghanistan will only buttress the argument of the New Isolationists. This is the larger danger. America remains the sole nation capable of playing the role of adult. The world needs us. The world will soon need us even more.” He then offers a laundry list of countries that may provoke conflicts and lead the world to war unless America intervenes in a leading role. Who knows – he may be right.
The first 10,000…
Republicans can afford to be isolationists and reflect public sentiment on withdrawal from Afghanistan in a way that the Democratic administration cannot. This is the primary reason that it now faces serious problems in constructing a plan for withdrawal.
A Washington Post blog reads: “If you’re in Washington these days, and you’re hearing a pitter-patter, it’s probably the sound of lawmakers running away from the Obama administration’s strategy in Afghanistan.”
The point is that the price of today’s decisions on withdrawal deadlines may have to be paid in the near future. Neither mayors, nor Republican nominees will be the ones who foot the bill. What if power is handed over to the Taliban military, as Romney suggested? That may well be the case after the secret talks conducted between the United States and the Taliban over the past few months failed to produce any meaningful results. And why should the Taliban accept U.S. terms? All it has to do is wait.
In his address, Obama invoked a key phrase that is bound to please every American: “America, it is time to focus on nation-building here at home.” The message is that an attempt to build a modern and democratic nation in Afghanistan was a failure, and it’s time to let the Afghans do it themselves.
The outcome of Obama’s new Afghan strategy is still unclear. When he refers to a withdrawal, the president is now speaking about the soldiers whom he sent to Afghanistan himself. His administration came into office with a complete revision of the war’s previous strategy. In 2009, he agreed (albeit with reservations) to the proposals of his generals – sending another 33,000 troops to Afghanistan after the previous contingent proved inadequate. His idea was to strike hard and pull out fast while the enemy was still out of breath.
Today, he said that he plans to bring these 33,000 soldiers home, “thereby fully recovering the surge…” The timetable gives commanders what they want: one more combat season. After next summer, some 68,000 troops will remain in Afghanistan – the same force in numbers that served under Bush. Meanwhile, the 2014 deadline that Obama set in 2009 for full withdrawal remains intact.
It’s too early to pry into details or discuss whether Obama’s “strike-and-withdraw” plan has been a success. That much will be clear only after the presidential elections in 2012.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s and may not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.