With Osama bin Laden removed from Afghanistan’s equation, supporters and opponents of the war have escalated their personal tug of war over the Obama administration’s strategy. Those already in favor of withdrawal see no reason to maintain a heavy military footprint, while the war’s supporters have dropped anchor in fear of an impending “surrender.” Neither should expect a public decision in the near future, as President Barack Obama positioned his announcement as close to July as possible.
Planned from the beginning, the administration has justified another extended review with the Taliban’s summer campaign.
For a while the Pentagon appeared in position to postpone July's deadline. One sentence after the other, U.S. officials hype coalition gains before warning of their “fragile” status. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and General David Petraeus never fail to qualify their optimistic assessments with the “conditions-based” tag. Three options have been considered for July: no withdrawal, the removal of a supplemental MEU deployed in late 2010 (roughly 1,400 combat troops), or a combination of 5,000 combat and support troops. The Pentagon naturally favored no withdrawal during the surge’s climax, resistance that has weighed heavily on Obama’s political conscience.
The White House wishes to avoid bowing to the Pentagon while simultaneously imputing its advice for political cover.
Many observers presume that bin Laden’s death has flipped the table in Obama’s favor. Some believe that Republicans are less likely to challenge a withdrawal with bin Laden resting at the bottom of the Arabian Sea, although the GOP remains staunchly opposed. Others wonder if the administration will spend its political cache on keeping the bulk of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. One strain of thought predicts a breakthrough in negotiations with the Taliban - a “game-changer” as Gates says. Another expects the White House to defer to the Pentagon.
"You will have a camp in the White House that will say, 'With bin Laden gone, al Qaeda can't go back into Afghanistan'," a senior U.S. official said.
Yet military officials appear to be losing their battle. Mirroring the leaks of previous reviews, staff officers in Kabul have released a preliminary proposal that would withdraw 5,000 troops in July, followed by another 5,000 at the end of the year. Shawn Turner, spokesman for the president's National Security Council, responded, "The president has made no decision about the scope and pace of the drawdown that will begin in July, nor has he received any recommendation. Any speculation is therefore completely premature and says nothing about the decision that the president will ultimately make."
U.S. officials issued similar statements during the run-up to Obama’s surge, when leaks pegged the number at 30,000.
Drafted before bin Laden’s death, the plan nevertheless falls in line with a realistic assessment of the war’s condition. At this point Obama must remove a moderate number of troops, or face renewed opposition to the war at the national and international levels. Afghans in particular want foreign troops out of their country after bin Laden was discovered in Pakistan. Many in the south cannot understand why U.S. forces remain in Afghanistan when al-Qaeda has mostly vacated.
Obama wants to follow through on his political promise, of course, but 5,000 was always the ceiling. It never made military sense to plan the withdrawal during July, let alone redeploy a significant number of forces. The Taliban’s eyes would light up. U.S. officials have even told NBC News that drawing down during summer would be “foolhardy.” Furthermore, combat troops only form a portion of the total 10,000.
Other military officials believe that removing “10,000” troops by December would satisfy the war’s opponents, while allowing the remaining 80,000 to carry on into 2012. This political boost would enable the war’s continuation, and the Pentagon’s plan still envisions 30,000-40,000 personnel remaining past 2014, when Afghan troops are scheduled to assume the lead in all security operations. Iraq has demonstrated how difficult this transition is, leading U.S. officials to successfully pressure Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki into considering an extension of December's deadline.
Since August 2010, when Obama declared the U.S. combat mission over, U.S. forces have suffered 16 “hostile” fatalities and another 19 “non-hostile” casualties. No reason exists as to why Afghanistan’s deadlines will hold.
The key variable, however, appears to remain unchanged from December 2009. Despite a lot of chatter directed towards reconciliation with the Taliban, the Pentagon’s strategy has attempted to smoke its leadership out with a blitzkrieg on mid-level commanders. Afghanistan’s sizable minority continues to oppose reconciliation on the political front, while few Taliban foot-soldiers have reintegrated into the modestly funded program. Negotiation continues to mean surrender to both sides.
This will have to change if the Obama administration expects to draw down U.S. forces without consequence. Afghanistan’s political and economic conditions, coupled with the Taliban’s resiliency, suggest that NATO’s gains will erode in the absence of the current force level. Afghan army and police units aren't ready to fill the gap. As for U.S. politics, failing to progress negotiations out of the back-channels will wreck increasing havoc on the war’s perception. Already largely at war with the Taliban rather than al-Qaeda, America could find itself in a one-on-one fight with a national insurgency once NATO countries accelerate their own withdrawals.
Such isolation runs the risk of renewing support for the insurgency.
U.S. officials seem to expect the Taliban to break ranks with al-Qaeda for free, or else are manipulating the thought for domestic consumption. The Taliban don’t seek to rule all of Afghanistan and remains open to ditching al-Qaeda, but it does harbor political ambitions for the Pashtun belt. For the White House to reach an agreement with the Taliban leadership, it will have to pay a price that the Pentagon may not accept.
Most Taliban fight out of national desire or economic plight, not for bin Laden. They fight because foreign troops occupy their land. Until that changes they shouldn’t be expected to give up.
We’ve considered July’s outcome numerous times since Obama vaguely outlined his strategy in December 2009. Before SEALS raided bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, our prediction was set on the withdrawal of the Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) and possibly another 3,000 combat and support troops, for a total of roughly 5,000. Removing 10,000 - one third of the surge - will manifest immediately in the south, east and north. Bin Laden’s death hasn’t significantly altered the battlefield, and may even harden the Taliban’s resolve to wage its own war.
Thus a withdrawal over 5,000 still doesn’t seem possible. The real question is whether the White House will dare to go lower.