Since Scott Wilson and Karen DeYoung broke the suspense, I guess I’m free to say now that the President will announce tonight the removal of all 33,000 second surge troops from Afghanistan within 14 months, by September 2012. This would include a reduction of 10,000 troops by the end of the year, with the other 23,000 to be removed next year.
Administration officials are confident that the force levels have peaked in Afghanistan, and that the President would continue to draw down forces even after September 2012, with the goal of removing combat forces by 2014, when security is turned over to the Afghans. There were no specific numbers for future withdrawals, only a promise that reductions would continue after the 33,000 second surge troops left the country.
This ends up being mildly better than the original expectation, that the 33,000 would be removed by the end of 2012. But it still means that, in all likelihood, there will be more troops in Afghanistan at the end of Obama’s term than at the beginning, and by a pretty wide margin. By Inauguration Day 2009, there were only 32,800 US troops in Afghanistan. There would be around 68,000 troops in the country by September 2012, under this order.
Obama certainly felt slippage among the public and the opposing party in support for the war, which led in part to his decision.
Increasingly, though, Congressional Republicans, long the bedrock of support for his war policy, have called for a faster drawdown and sharper focus. His own party long ago turned against the mission. Some of its leading foreign policy voices, as well administration allies, have called for a new strategy in Afghanistan to take advantage of recent changes on the ground.
Those include, most notably, the killing in May of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, a sanctuary for al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders where many war skeptics believe the real enemy resides.
It’s unclear whether the long time frame and the focus on just the second surge troops will satisfy anyone on Capitol Hill, especially those who wanted to see a total change of mission. They are sure to be disappointed, because the mission isn’t likely to change, though the location may shift to the east rather than provinces like Helmand and Kandahar. We’ll still have a counter-insurgency mission in Afghanistan for the foreseeable future. There is an emphasis on reintegrating Taliban soldiers into the community, but that has been mixed. There’s a claim of hundreds of thousands of Afghan security, but many have been revealed to be illiterate, perpetually on drugs, and unable to fight well.
I would say that this announcement shows that public pressure can move the President. This is a relatively tame withdrawal, but it’s definitely more than the military leadership wanted. The President is certainly aware that the public has checked out on the war and wants a leader who can bring it to a close.
But the real story in Afghanistan will be the result of two negotiations. One, the negotiations over a peace deal between the Karzai government and the Taliban, the only way that we will be able to manage an exit. Two, the negotiations between the US and Afghanistan on a binational and enduring agreement on troops or bases. This is the “permanent base” strategy, perhaps the only reason why we remain in Afghanistan, to maintain a base from which to launch drone and covert attacks on terrorist operations around the region. Administration officials admit that there’s no chance that Afghani insurgents have the capacity to attack beyond their borders; the transnational threat, to the extent that it exists, comes from Pakistan. But we can’t put bases in Pakistan, so Afghanistan is the next best thing. The sooner the political leaders calling for withdrawal figure this one out, the better.