Did Obama “Flinch” on Afghanistan?

President Obama announces a timeline for withdrawing forces from Afghanistan in an address to the nation on June 22, 2011.

In President Obama’s speech to the nation on Wednesday night, he announced that he would be withdrawing 10,000 U.S. troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2011 and an additional 23,000 by summer 2012.  This would leave the U.S. with 68,000 troops by next summer, and the administration has pledged to withdraw all forces by the end of 2014.  As noted by David Rothkopf, this withdrawal plan is too slow for some critics (most of whom are on the political left), and too fast for others (generally on the political right).

Most of the criticism is coming from the conservative side of the political spectrum, and it highlights some crucial strategic dilemmas associated with counterinsurgency–the type of war the U.S. has increasingly found itself engaged in since 9/11.  Counterinsurgency warfare focuses on providing security for the civilian population and winning the “hearts and minds” of the people so they support the government rather than the insurgents.  Many critics of Obama’s withdrawal plan have suggested that by adhering to arbitrary deadlines for withdrawal–based on domestic political pressure rather than conditions on the ground in Afghanistan–Obama risks undoing all the progress that has been made at enormous cost, in blood and treasure, over the past decade (including Obama’s own “surge” of forces in late 2009).  An oft-repeated concern is that by setting clear timetables for withdrawal America signals the enemy that they can just “wait us out” and signals Afghan civilians that we won’t be there to protect them from these militants, so they had better start hedging their bets.

Michael Waltz, a former special forces officer with multiple tours in Afghanistan, raises these concerns in an ominous piece in Foreign Policy:

“What this administration doesn’t fully realize is that the Afghans, their government, the Pakistanis, the Indians, the Iranians, and the rest of South and Central Asia aren’t listening to the policy nuances of Wednesday’s announcement. All they hear is U.S. withdrawal and abandonment. More disturbingly, all the Taliban and al Qaeda hear is that they have survived the worst of it and they only need to last a few more years until 2014. Three and a half years is nothing in that part of the world. Although Obama attempted to emphasize that significant U.S. forces will remain after the withdrawal of the surge, their very mission to win over the populace will be severely undercut by the message he sent Wednesday night. The entire region is now hedging against the United States rather than siding with it.”

Similarly, the editors of the conservative publication National Review take issue with Obama’s strategy in a piece entitled “Obama Flinches”:

“There’s a reason Gen. David Petraeus opposed this kind of drawdown and that, apparently, no general supported it…It’s Obama’s prerogative as commander-in-chief to make whatever strategic judgment he deems appropriate, but the lack of military support for this decision highlights its essentially political nature…[the Afghan] government is a mess and — to one extent or another — always will be.  Afghanistan is a poor, tribal society.  We should have no great expectations for it.  The question is whether it is fated to be ruled by (or at least provide safe haven to) the Taliban and other extremists.  President Obama just made it more likely the answer to that question will be ‘yes.'”

The counterarguments provided by Obama and Congressional Democrats include (a) we are winning and we will keep the pressure on the Taliban and Al Qaeda, both in Afghanistan and Pakistan (e.g., through drone strikes), as we withdraw our ground forces, and (b) setting clear deadlines for withdrawal forces Afghanistan’s government to step up, “grow up,” and take on the roles of providing security and providing basic services instead of remaining dependent on American assistance.

Who do you think is right?  Is Obama’s withdrawal schedule too fast, too slow, or just right?  Does it ignore the realities of counterinsurgency warfare, the commitment of our adversaries, and the politics of the region, or is it a sensible policy for ending this costly war and beginning, as Obama declared in his speech, to “focus on nation building here at home”?

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