As most of you know by now, last week Barack Obama outlined his plan for drawing down some of the American forces stationed in Afghanistan. According to Obama, by the end of this year, 10,000 troops will leave the country, with an additional 23,000 to follow them out the door by September 2012. The sum total (33,000) of the withdrawal essentially represents the surge in forces that was implemented in 2009/10.
These moves beg the following questions: Why remove the number of troops at the pace described by Obama? What's the logic underpinning Obama's decision? Two popular arguments have been put forward.
1. Obama himself suggested that he was reluctant to remove more than 33,000 troops because he wanted to retain a large enough contingent in Afghanistan that could pressure the Taliban into full-fledged negotiations, concessions, and eventually a political deal. There is an obvious problem with this argument, however. If the peak number of American forces in Afghanistan (about 100,000), a number includes the 2009/10 surge, couldn't break the back of the Taliban, couldn't get the group to commit in earnest to joining peace talks, then why would 2/3 of that number do the trick? If the goal is to put an enormous strain on the Taliban, then Obama should've taken the advice of his military advisers and proceeded with a much slower withdrawal. This would've given the U.S. military a chance to consolidate some of the gains it's made over the last year and continue making progress on the ground. It doesn't make much sense to let the Taliban off the hook now, if the goal is what Obama has argued.
2. The New York Times, citing anonymous sources, claims that "high-ranking officials say that al-Qaeda’s original network in the region has been crippled, providing a rationale for an accelerated reduction of troops." Surely, there is much truth in that statement.
After all, by most accounts, the Obama administration has made it a priority to shift American strategy in Afghanistan from nation building to countering the global jihadists (specifically, al-Qaeda, or AQ) who pose a threat to the U.S.
And AQ really has been badly damaged over the last year. American troops and drone attacks have taken out a number of AQ and AQ-aligned individuals. Most estimates say that there are only about 100 or so of AQ in Afghanistan. Of course, the head of AQ, Osama bin Laden, the charismatic terror leader who was the founder of the group as well as a strategic and recruitment guru, has been killed. Furthermore, the Arab uprisings, which have by led largely by peaceful pro-democratic movements and motivated mostly by aspirations for freedom and transparency, have rendered AQ irrelevant and meaningless in the Middle East and North Africa.
But here's the rub: if Obama thinks that America's job in Afghanistan is basically complete, now that AQ is rudderless, in disarray, and on the run, then why should the U.S. keep any significant number of troops in the country? Does the U.S. really need to keep more than 60,000 Americans stationed in Afghanistan to control, if not eliminate, a 100 AQ members? This is a huge waste of resources. And even more importantly, it unnecessarily places American men and women in harm's way, for they're targets of AQ, yes, but also the Taliban, which also wants the U.S. out of Afghanistan.
I suspect there is another factor at play here, one that that has been overlooked by journalists and policy analysts. Thanks to the recent admission by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, we now know for certain that the U.S. is talking via interlocutors with the Taliban. With this in mind, it's possible that Obama's withdrawal plan is part of ongoing bargaining maneuvers with the Taliban.
In short, it's conceivable he promised to cut the number of troops in Afghanistan as a goodwill gesture to get the Taliban to the negotiating table. But in a bargain such as this, the U.S. can't take all of its troops out of the county lest it lose entirely its leverage vis-a-vis the other side. So for now, it keeps a substantial amount of troops in Afghanistan. If the Taliban comes to the table and negotiates with the various actors (the Afghan government, Pakistan, the U.S.) in good faith, the U.S. can go ahead as planned with the withdrawal and even make deeper cuts in troop levels, potentially leading to the full exit of America's military from Afghanistan. But if the Taliban balks at seeking a negotiated resolution to the ongoing conflict, or steps up its attacks against the U.S. and its allies (e.g., NATO forces, Afghan troops, installations, infrastructure, citizens), then Obama can backtrack on his promise and freeze the drawdown, particularly with respect to the second wave of forces proposed to leave Afghanistan. Remember, the bulk of the surge forces leaving Afghanistan aren't supposed to depart until 2012, plenty of time for the Taliban to show its cards and for Obama to rethink his plan.
Readers, I'm sure, might doubt that Obama would proceed in this manner, especially with elections in 2012. But Obama really need not worry about the American left, he has that vote wrapped up. Will the left vote for Romney or Pawlenty or Bachmann? Highly unlikely. What Obama will need to do is secure the moderate, independent vote, just like he did in 2008. And while a growing number of Americans are tiring of the "long war," this doesn't mean that a freeze on troop levels would hurt Obama.
To the contrary, it could help him. Standing up to and maintaining the fight against the Taliban very easily could be interpreted as signs of decisive leadership and his determination to rout terrorism, which, in turn, might play well with independent voters. Additionally, if the economy continues to struggle by the summer of 2012, and that's almost a given at this point, Obama will likely find himself in a electoral dogfight, looking for any and all ways to bolster his presidential credentials. Don't be surprised if he looks to highlight his national security bona fides. Positioning himself as the anti-terror president, a part of which could include staying the course in Afghanistan, is one possible way to do that.