According to the Los Angeles Times, President Obama on Wednesday will announce a withdrawal of 10,000 US troops from Afghanistan by the end of the year – a reduction of 10%, more than Gen. David Petraeus wanted. Petraeus and the Pentagon reportedly had wanted a token withdrawal of one brigade, roughly 3-4,000 combat troops.
Combined with the earlier report of all the surge troops leaving by the end of next year, which LAT corroborates (though they add that it may take until early 2013 to remove them), there would be force numbers of around 90,000 US troops in Afghanistan at the end of 2011, and 70,000 at the end of 2012. There are around 40,000 NATO troops from member countries in Afghanistan as well; some of those may be leaving in the coming years as well.
So any way you slice it, we’re looking at more US troops in Afghanistan at the end of Obama’s first term than at the beginning. He increased the force by 20,000 at the beginning of 2009, even before the “second surge.”
And beyond the raw numbers, there is no sense yet of whether or not the withdrawal will accompany a change in strategy. We know that the US has tried to facilitate peace negotiations to flip members of the Taliban; will that be foregrounded? The territorial gains have been fragile; can they be sustained? We know that operations will shift from Helmand Province and Kandahar in the south, to the east of the country; what does this mean for the south and the force presence that remains? And most important, will there be any rethinking of the counter-insurgency operation, which has yielded few results, in favor of a limited counter-terrorism mission, particularly in the wake of bin Laden? The signs point to no there:
White House and Pentagon officials said the decision to begin bringing out troops did not signal a shift in strategy away from counterinsurgency-style warfare and toward a so-called counter-terrorism approach that emphasizes pursuing Al Qaeda members and other insurgent leaders.
From a pure numbers standpoint, this is unlikely to placate anyone in Congress. This leaves close to the same amount of troops in Afghanistan for another six months to a year – another Friedman unit, as Atrios would say. 204 House members, including all but 8 Democrats, voted last month to accelerate the withdrawal. This announcement would represent only an acceleration from David Petraeus’ best hopes.
From a strategy standpoint, it’s even worse: basically “stay the course,” a course which almost nobody independent of the Administration has said is working. The killing of bin Laden could have offered a rethinking of the strategic mission in Afghanistan, but we’re still apparently going to partner with a corrupt leader, building little of value other than a massive security force that represents almost all of the country’s GDP.
Over the weekend, Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA) floated the possibility of permanent bases in Afghanistan as an end goal, from which to launch covert CIA and JSOC attacks throughout the region. Certainly, the slowness of the drawdown tends to point in that direction. In that sense, perhaps the bigger announcement than this one on troops is any announcement on the details of a status of forces agreement between the US and Afghanistan.
UPDATE: FDL alum Spencer Ackerman writes that the Taliban talks matter far more than the troop numbers, because the talks represent the only way out.
That means the key criteria for determining how the Afghanistan war will end won’t be how fast the drawdown goes. It’ll be how the drawdown supports the peace talks. Obama could float temporary halts in hostilities to entice the Taliban to more serious negotiations. Or he could say that the fighting will continue in intensity if the Taliban are intransigent. It could go any number of ways.
But if Obama’s Wednesday speech doesn’t explain how the drawdown supports a political strategy for ending the war, it’ll mean one thing: he has no idea how to get out of Afghanistan.
UPDATE II: We now have word that Obama will address the nation tomorrow night at 8pm ET “to lay out his plan for implementing his strategy — first unveiled in December 2009 — to draw down American troops from Afghanistan.” So it’s a plan of a strategy.