If President Barack Obama’s looming address on Afghanistan is anything like the White House’s pre-briefing and past reviews, expect to leave with as many questions as answers. No matter how sweet Obama talks - a hypnotic repetition of the word “success,” dismantling al-Qaeda, breaking the Taliban’s momentum, building local governance and the alleged triumph of counter-terrorism - his conclusion has already taken shape.
Obama’s methodical speech isn’t designed to sincerely scale-down America’s footprint, only create this image while marching forward.
Barring a total surprise, the various reports and sources trying to make sense of his July 2011 deadline needlessly complicate this process. Although the Pentagon ideally envisions no withdrawals until January 2012, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is prepared to concede a phased withdrawal of 20,000 troops by next spring. Under the leading option submitted by General David Petraeus, 5,000 troops (combat and non-combat) would redeploy after summer, followed by another 5,000 over winter. The remaining 20,000 troops involved in the surge would phase out over 2012, leaving the remaining 68,000 to fight on until 2014.
A "significant" force will remain afterward whether Obama rejects this possibility or not.
At the spectrum’s opposite end sit those Democrats led publicly (but not privately) by Vice President Joe Biden. Hoping to see all Obama’s surge redeployed by the end of 2012, these forces fear the next election cycle and urge an accelerated withdrawal of 15,000 by December, with the other half leaving before 2013. Some counter-terror advocates even favor pulling all of Obama’s surge out by the end of 2011, coupled with intensified Special Forces and drone patrols. They should keep dreaming unless they want to wake up to Afghanistan's brutal reality.
Wednesday’s likeliest outcome combines elements of both extremes. Having split the difference between White House and Pentagon circles once before, Obama will announce a phased withdrawal of 10,000-15,000 troops over the next 12 months, followed by an overall time-table to reduce the majority of forces by the end of 2014. Aiming low isn’t an option with Obama bent on resisting the Pentagon, whose overbearing influence in Afghanistan has attracted widespread scrutiny of his abilities.
White House officials have, through no coincidence, hammered this point most: Afghanistan is the President’s call and he will fulfill his promise to begin removing troops by July.
Yet this isn’t the most encouraging selling point given the decrepit state of Obama’s foreign policy. While combining the political and military elements is essential in counterinsurgency - specifically managing expectations - Obama is running on his own political agenda rather than Afghanistan's. The magic middle that he constantly searches for produced mixed results in his surge, and now Obama appears set to repeat history rather than learn.
The reason is simple: U.S. policy in Afghanistan hasn’t succeeded to the degree that Washington advertises. Thousands upon thousands of Taliban have been killed, large swaths of southern Afghanistan have been cleared, and some communities are beginning to break away from the Taliban’s influence. The Afghan military is gradually improving its training and local militias are starting to fill immediate security gaps. Except all of these measuring sticks exist in a vacuum, without any real scale to measure progress, and can be quickly flipped to the negative.
The most glaring aspect of U.S. policy remains the lagging pace of political progress.
It’s true that al-Qaeda has lost its territory in Afghanistan. In the process it gained territory elsewhere in the Middle East and Africa, in fragile states where U.S. policy remains acutely disorganized. Al-Qaeda's strategic objective was to draw America into Afghanistan, then move out again and keep running. Although many senior leaders entrenched themselves in Pakistan because of its extensive network and Islamabad’s willingness to look the other way, they didn’t do so because they had nowhere else to go. America succeeded in driving what was left of al-Qaeda out of Afghanistan - and into other regions.
On a related note, Afghanistan’s emphasis on counter-terrorism is now set to be exported to these same conflict zones, Yemen and Somalia in particular. Such a strategy is destined to fail in containing al-Qaeda or remedying the conditions it thrives on.
The Taliban, on the other hand, isn’t as “broke” as Washington portrays; The New York Times recently documented low interest in Kabul’s U.S.-funded rehabilitation program. Of the estimated 25,000 Taliban remaining after a year-long, Special Forces blitzkrieg, only 1,700 have joined the 10-month set-up, with two-thirds hailing from northern Afghanistan. Some fighters are further suspected of being armed men hoping to exploit the system. Those commanders that have joined speak of a common pattern: initial pay, temporary housing and empty promises in the end.
Although U.S. officials claim that many fighters in the south are too scared to join out of fear of reprisal attacks, or because of local disputes, this thinking minimizes the bare truth of the Taliban’s mindset. In an op-ed for CounterPunch, The Independent’s Patrick Cockburn examined one side of this reality while reliving the Taliban’s unorthodox escape from Kandahar’s Sarposa prison. In juxtaposition to crude impressions of Afghans, the prison-break demonstrated an “imaginative, disciplined and resourceful” insurgency. Most Afghans make up for the lack of formal education with these traits.
In the same vein, U.S. commanders on the ground speak as though the majority of Taliban fight for money or local interests. Though some fighters obviously subsist on these personal goals, the majority fight to resist an occupying Western army and secure power in Afghanistan. They view Afghan President Hamid Karzai as a puppet to be disposed, and nothing has changed to make them feel otherwise.
“American decision-makers have still not grasped that the Taliban's main motivation – as revealed in several surveys of insurgents – is a desire to end foreign occupation of their country,” observes Johnathan Steele, chief foreign correspondent for The Guardian. “US officials, political as well as military, produce endless briefings that claim people join the Taliban because of money, unemployment, or local disputes over land and family honor.”
Steele was reacting to the frontal feud between Karzai and outgoing U.S. ambassador Kari Eikenberry, who recently chastised Karzai for calling U.S. troops “occupiers.” Threatening that Karzai’s insults make America “begin to lose our inspiration to carry on,” Eikenberry vainly remarked, “America has never sought to occupy any nation in the world.” As though the Taliban would ever believe that.
For now reconciliation remains a political buzzword designed to push the war forward, not wind it down.
"My own view is that real reconciliation talks are not likely to be able to make any substantive headway until at least this winter," Gates argues. "I think that the Taliban have to feel themselves under military pressure, and begin to believe that they can't win before they're willing to have a serious conversation."
So why, if their momentum is truly broken as Obama claims, are 80,000 troops still needed in order to “break” the Taliban in 2012? When exactly is this force suddenly going to switch sides? Obama is unlikely to discuss the possibility that, two years down the line, the Taliban could remain a potent fighting unit that refuses to accept America's terms. Clearly some disarray, both politically and militarily, has set into the Taliban’s leadership. However the same can be said for the coalition.
Contrary to withdrawing from a position of strength, U.S. and NATO forces need more time and a similar amount of strength to “break the Taliban’s momentum.” Nor will Washington, NATO countries and their publics agree on how to resolve this dilemma.
Because confidence in 2011’s withdrawal is already running low, Obama will surely seek to re-frame the public debate around 2014. Beyond a necessary strategic outlook, shifting permanently past 2013 allows the Pentagon to massage the White House’s time-table and squeeze out additional fighting seasons. Afghanistan’s time-line isn’t matching up to Iraq’s drop in violence; the two countries only share a surface comparison, and Afghanistan's military and civil infrastructure are nowhere near Iraq's. The reality is that America cannot afford to lose any troops and maintain their present gains. Conversely, removing 10,000 troops by the end of next year is insignificant.
Thus 5,000-10,000 is too significant of a withdrawal in the short-term and too insignificant in the long-term. The middle ground appears to be an illusion.
We will soon see how Obama “the professor” attempts to logically reconcile the many paradoxes America has created in Afghanistan. But remember the words of Robert Gates, a man who, according to the White House, will not make the final decision: “Whatever decision he makes, we will have a significant number of troops remaining in Afghanistan.”