Exit Strategies, the Shadow of the Future, and the U.S. Withdrawal from Afghanistan

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announces that U.S. troops will end their combat mission in Afghanistan by mid-2013.

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced this week that U.S. forces would step back from their central combat role in Afghanistan by mid-2013, taking on an “advise and assist” role more than a year before all U.S. troops are scheduled to be withdrawn (the end of 2014). The New York Times highlighted the novelty and political significance of this controversial announcement:

“Mr. Panetta cast the decision as an orderly step in a withdrawal process long planned by the United States and its allies, but his comments were the first time that the United States had put a date on stepping back from its central role in the war. The defense secretary’s words reflected the Obama administration’s eagerness to bring to a close the second of two grinding ground wars it inherited from the Bush administration.”

The announcement was immediately seized on by critics of the Obama administration, who contend that setting an arbitrary deadline for withdrawal (rather than making withdrawal contingent on the achievement of key security goals) (1) gives “aid and comfort” to the enemy by encouraging the Taliban and Al Qaeda to just wait out the U.S. and (2) sends a dangerous signal to pro-U.S. Afghans that they had better not cast their lot with those who will soon be much weaker or gone altogether.  As with America’s withdrawal from Iraq, proponents of a clear exit timeline in Afghanistan contend that (1) the U.S. has spent enough blood and treasure in this conflict, and (2) setting a clear timeline will force Afghanistan’s leaders to step up and take responsibility for their own country rather than remaining dependent on the U.S. and its coalition partners.

Even a prominent supporter of a swift withdrawal from Afghanistan (realist scholar Stephen Walt) argues that announcing timetables reduces U.S. leverage since Afghan leaders know America won’t be around to punish noncompliance or reward compliance: a key concept called the shadow of the future.

What do you think?  Is the Obama administration’s timetable for reducing America’s combat role and pulling its troops out of Afghanistan harmful or helpful for U.S. interests?  Is it in Afghanistan’s best interests?  Are Obama’s critics right that the president is being driven by political motives and risks throwing away the hard-won achievements of the last 10 years of war?

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