international analysis and commentary

Afghanistan: drawing down in time for the US elections

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“America, it is time to focus on nation building here at home,” President Barack Obama told his American audience by announcing the size of the upcoming withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan. It is a statement that reveals how economic and political motivations overwhelmed military considerations in shaping this important decision on the Afghan war.

Obama has announced that 10,000 US troops will be withdrawn by the end of 2011, starting in July. Twenty-three thousand troops will leave Afghanistan by next summer. As a whole, the 33,000 surge troops deployed on the basis of the decision made in December 2009 will be back home in time for the next presidential election.

In his June 22 speech, Obama affirmed that the surge and the strategy agreed in 2009 had three goals: to refocus war efforts on al Qaeda, to reverse the Taliban’s momentum, and to train the Afghan national security forces. According to the President, these goals have been met: bin Laden has been killed, the Taliban lost control of their Helmand and Kandahar strongholds, and the size of the Afghan national security forces has grown by 100,000 troops. Therefore, the withdrawal can now begin, as promised two years ago.

The President’s assessment is substantially correct. But progress in building up Afghan security forces and civilian institutions, as well as in taking control of populated areas from insurgents, are “fragile and reversible” as testified by ISAF Commander General David Petraeus at the US Congress. This is the reason why Petraeus, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, as well as senior NATO commanders, would have preferred a much more cautious withdrawal, amounting to 3,000-5,000 troops by the end of 2011. Moderate Republicans such as John McCain have also advocated a more modest withdrawal, while Republican House Speaker John Boehner has replied to the announcement by stressing the importance of flexibly assessing troop levels in light of conditions on the ground. In this political context, the flexibility which Gates has been insisting on is crucial to Obama’s – apparently less flexible – approach.

In contrast, from both extremes of the US political spectrum the pressure continues to mount to bring the troops home. A caucus of 80 progressive House Democrats asked the President to withdraw at least 30,000 troops by the end of 2011 regardless of developments on the ground. They also proposed to radically shift US strategy from counterinsurgency to special forces operations against al Qaeda supporters, moving from a heavy military presence to more intelligence.

Nancy Pelosi, who after the defeat in the last midterm elections continues to hold the leadership of House Democrats, promises to keep Obama under pressure to accelerate the pace of the drawdown. In doing so, liberals are joined by their hardest opponents, the Tea Party House Representatives. The newly elected right-wing Republicans are increasingly taking an isolationist stance, calling for US disengagement from Afghanistan and, generally speaking, from international responsibilities. Some of the Republican candidates for the presidential nomination partly share this view, while the GOP front-runner Mitt Romney warns that decisions on the Afghan war should not be taken on the basis of either economics or politics.

But the reality is that economics and politics obviously matter a lot. With regard to the first, in time of high sovereign debt and contested budget cuts on almost every US federal program, the current bill of the Afghan war – two billion dollars per week – is considered unsustainable. In his announcement of withdrawal numbers, Obama indeed recalled that the US has spent one trillion dollars for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last decade. Regarding politics, recent polls show that the large majority of Americans agree with a partial reduction or even total withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan. This attitude has intensified after the killing of bin Laden, considered by most as the substantial and symbolic victory achieved after so many war efforts. Above all, the economy is the main concern of the electorate, as demonstrated by the fact that Afghanistan now receives only 4% of media coverage and is quite marginal in the political debate. In short, Obama has chosen to follow the voters’ mood – rather than lead it – by announcing a significant, rapid and visible withdrawal, to then concentrate on domestic priorities.

The question remains, however: what does this mean for Afghanistan and for the NATO mission there? Both Afghans and NATO allies will have to adjust – as they did in the past – to what is essentially a unilateral American decision. Afghan President Hamid Karzai has publicly welcomed Obama’s announcement, but Afghan officials, particularly in the Ministry of Defense, make the point (mostly off the record) that the withdrawal must take place gradually as they are still not capable of taking on security responsibilities. On his part, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has stated that the US decision comes after close consultations and is based on the allies’ collective achievements over the past two years. Yet, the problem is now that the entire NATO “transition” strategy is tailored to a three-year time frame, and requires a substantial number of combat troops until 2014, as well as significant military support to Afghanistan even beyond that date. What we know for sure is that French President Nicolas Sarkozy (with his own penchant for rapid and unilateral moves) has immediately announced that French troops will start to be withdrawn according to the US timeframe – whatever that will be.

Having said all this, the new withdrawal timetable does not mean that the US is going to abandon Afghanistan – as it did not abandon Iraq, where 45,000 American troops are still deployed. The Iraqi case can in fact be instructive in a wider sense: the current US presence there aims to support Iraqi security forces and to deter insurgent groups from backtracking on political dialogue and from returning to fighting. But the Iraqi commitment is almost no longer covered by the American media, nor is it in the political debate: it has become a non-issue. This may be the case with Afghanistan if the transition succeeds, and in such context the announced withdrawal aims to send the message to the public that the war is going to end, although 78,000 US troops will remain in Afghanistan at the close of the first Obama mandate. Efforts to “finish the job” will continue, so the precise role of American forces is still uncertain – possibly to be better defined at the summit of NATO allies scheduled for late 2011 in Chicago. But there is at least one major difference with the Iraqi experience: the Iraqi drawdown began, not according to a pre-established timetable, but according to conditions on the ground. That moment came in November 2007, when there were 430,000 Iraqi security forces ready to take over security responsibilities; in contrast, there are now 290,000 Afghan security forces, and they are not able to lead military operations. So the risks of a substantial US withdrawal are high, and a future acceleration of its pace make them even higher. The clock in Washington ticks faster than the clock in Kabul, but the Obama administration will have to ensure that the Afghan clock does not end up getting smashed.