international analysis and commentary

The US and the drawdown in Afghanistan

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Since Osama bin Laden’s death, the Afghan war has lost urgency in the eyes of a growing number of American voters, legislators on Capitol Hill and even officials within the White House. After all, the United States went into Afghanistan in October 2001 primarily because the Taliban were sheltering bin Laden. Now that he has been found and killed – in Pakistan, not Afghanistan – it has become harder for President Barack Obama to justify the costs of the US mission there, $444 billion since 2001, particularly at a time when the country is faced with enduring economic woes.

As President Obama makes his decision on the drawdown of US troops from Afghanistan, he will have to take into account both the economic concerns of voters and the advice of his military leadership, who are worried that a precipitous withdrawal could reverse the fragile progress achieved over the past year.

The American mission in Afghanistan comprises approximately 100,000 ground troops today, the result of the 30,000-soldier “surge” ordered by President Obama in December 2009. According to a study from the Congressional Research Service, the Department of Defense’s average monthly spending in Afghanistan has grown from $4.4 billion in 2009 to $6.7 billion in 2010, a 50% increase in costs mirroring the increase in the number of troops deployed.

The President set a tentative timeline for a drawdown when he ordered the surge. It is set to begin this summer and end, at least in theory, in 2014, when NATO forces are scheduled to turn security over to the Afghans. Therefore, the ongoing debate over Afghanistan is really a debate over how steep the withdrawal should be starting this July. The military is pressing for only a slow, gradual pullout, numbering no more than a few thousands soldiers and leaving combat troops behind for as long as possible. The Pentagon wants to maintain sufficient force on the ground for another summer offensive against the insurgents and to prevent territories reclaimed from the Taliban in recent months from falling back into their hands. “If it were up to me, I would leave the shooters for last,” said departing Secretary of Defense Robert Gates during his recent farewell tour around the world. Gates is scheduled to leave his post on June 30th. He will be succeeded by Leon Panetta, now Director of the CIA. General David Petraeus, in charge of NATO forces in Afghanistan and another advocate for a minimal drawdown, will take over Panetta’s role at the CIA.

In the past, the President has closely followed the advice of his military commanders, beginning with the surge a year and a half ago. This time, however, he will have to contend with much greater pressure, from both inside and outside the White House, in favor of more significant cuts.

According to a recent Pew Research Center poll, 60% of Americans believe that the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have contributed a great deal to the ballooning federal debt. In comparison, only 42% say that the state of the national economy is to blame. In addition, 65% of people view a reduction of military commitments overseas as an effective deficit-reduction measure.

Taking the cue from voters, Democratic leaders in Congress see bin Laden’s death as the perfect opportunity to revisit the Afghan strategy and bring home troops much more quickly than anticipated. In an interview with The Washington Post, Senator John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said, “The President ought to take advantage of that success and push us in a direction that accelerates the ability of the Afghans” to take over operations.

Inside the White House, Vice President Joe Biden and National Security Adviser Tom Donilon, who were both opposed to the 2009 surge and advocated instead targeted strikes against al Qaeda, feel their position has been vindicated by the Special Forces’ raid that killed bin Laden and want to see a steeper drawdown than the military proposes.  

Republicans in Congress are also divided. Traditionally, the GOP supports a strong military and an aggressive foreign policy. But the deficit-hawks within the party, propelled by the success of the fiscally conservative Tea Party, have joined the growing chorus of voices that want to see the US engagement in Afghanistan brought to a close. “Bin Laden is gone, and there is zero al Qaeda presence in Afghanistan. We have done our job,” said Republican Representative Walter B. Jones of North Carolina. In late May, Jones paired up with Democrat James McGovern of Massachusetts to offer an amendment for a swift end to the war. The proposal did not pass the House but gained an impressive amount of support, even from Republicans.

More mainstream members of the GOP, starting with Senator John McCain, take the Pentagon’s view. “I’m in exact agreement with Secretary Gates that it [the drawdown] should be very modest,” said McCain. When asked about a comment by Democratic Senator Carl Levin, Chairman of the Armed Services Committee, about the withdrawal of 15,000 troops by the end of the year, McCain replied, “I think if you want to lose…”

The intensifying debate about the ongoing US engagement in Afghanistan reflects the difficulties facing President Obama. Whatever decision he makes in the next few weeks will probably have lasting effects, which, one way or another, will impact his 2012 re-election campaign.

With the US economy struggling, and slated to dominate next year’s presidential elections, the growing cost of keeping a large military contingent in Afghanistan, even after the death of bin Laden, becomes a political liability, increasingly harder to explain to an electorate that wants the White House to concentrate exclusively on job creation at home.

On the other hand, if the President were to approve a much steeper withdrawal of troops than what the military advocates, and were the situation in Afghanistan to deteriorate in the near future, this would also cast a shadow on Obama’s re-election effort.

The President’s dilemma is made worse by the lack of substantial political progress in the region as a whole. The government of President Hamid Karzai, ridden with corruption and inefficiencies, does not appear to be the solid partner the US wished it were. Many experts believe that Afghan security forces will not be ready to take over for NATO by 2014.

Other, alarming problems plague neighboring Pakistan, which enjoys a great deal of influence among the Afghan Pashtuns and which demands a prominent role in post-war Afghanistan.

People in America are obsessively focused on their own struggling economy. But given the inherent complexities and the regional, if not global, spill-over effects of the war in Afghanistan, this issue is not about to disappear, at least not as quickly as Americans would hope.