The secret date for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan has been hiding in plain sight for months. It's certainly not the much ballyhooed July 2011 date, which will only begin withdrawals. It's not even July 2012 to smooth President Obama's reelection campaign. It's the end of 2014. The plan, NATO diplomats say, is for NATO leaders to formally announce this date at their Lisbon summit on November 19-20. Their thinking is to do this soon to reassure worried, friendly Afghans, to signal resolution to the Taliban, and to use their allied unity for political cushioning at home. NATO emissaries are still bargaining over exactly how many troops will remain after departure day and for what purposes. Details aside, the devastating truth is that U.S. forces will be fighting in Afghanistan for at least four more years.
Most of the players on America's side of the Afghan war are content with this date, but the Taliban and most Democrats won't be. Savor the explanations for these preferences.
Of course, President Hamid Karzai loves the extra life support he himself first proposed. Without it, he would soon be seeking a chateau in Switzerland. With it, he can hope. President Obama can swallow the four-year breather because it takes him beyond the next presidential election without his being accused of cutting and running. The NATO endorsement provides him with allied cover to fend off opposition from his fellow Democrats. General David Petraeus, NATO commander in Afghanistan, cherishes the extra time to prove that his counterinsurgency strategy can work in Afghanistan as it did in Iraq. Conservatives and hawks will rejoice because our troops can continue to fight for "victory," whatever the Taliban, the Democrats, and the majority of Americans say.
Most assuredly, the Taliban won't be celebrating the 2014 date because it virtually guarantees four more years of being chewed up by formidable American firepower. They can escape this only by going away and trying to hide. They are right to worry. As for Democrats, they will be livid at the added cost in lives and treasure for a cause that makes little strategic sense to them. And they, too, are right.
So, facing little political headwinds, Western leaders just push on with their plans to stay in Afghanistan for at least another four years–and ignore the critics.
The Obama administration and its NATO allies simply have not given convincing answers to two strategic questions. First, what will be accomplished by "defeating" the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan when terrorists bases now dot the global landscape? In other words, beating the bad guys in Afghanistan (and no one disputes they are very bad guys) won't mean the downfall or even the severe weakening of terrorism worldwide. Whatever happens in Afghanistan, terrorists will still be able to operate from Pakistan, Sudan, Yemen, Somalia, London, Jersey City, etc. Second, what effect will winning or losing in Afghanistan have on Pakistan? Washington insists that Pakistan's fate hinges on the outcome in Afghanistan, but if that's so, why do the Pakistanis continue to provide the Taliban with sanctuary and arms even as they urge us to fight on in Afghanistan? It's hard to believe that Pakistan, a barely viable country of 180 million Muslims of very different stripes, will rise or fall on the fate of their far less potent neighbor.
But neither Washington nor its NATO partners even bother to answer these questions seriously. And they get away with it because the Western world is totally preoccupied with its economic distress. So, facing little political headwinds, Western leaders just push on with their plans to stay in Afghanistan for at least another four years—and ignore the critics.
While the 2014 date will cause momentary shock to many Americans, the writing has been on the wall for months in public statements at the highest level. Karzai first introduced the date at the International Kabul Conference in July. "I remain determined that our Afghan national security forces will be responsible for all military and law enforcement operations throughout our country by 2014," he said. The 70 countries participating in the conference backed Karzai in their communiqué, which states: "Afghan national security forces should lead and conduct military operations in all provinces by the end of 2014."
Then, in September, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen also reaffirmed the 2014 date and added a hawkish and realistic note to the timeline. "I would like to stress," he said, "that handover doesn't mean exit. It means moving into a supporting role. And it means that forces–freed up by transition–would sometimes be moved into other areas, not necessarily sending them home." Presidents Obama and Karzai jointly endorsed the date in early October and underscored America's "enduring commitment to the Afghan people."
For weeks already, NATO diplomats are bustling about trying to flesh out the meaning of the 2014 date. Almost certainly, they will not include a timetable for arriving at the 2014 date itself in the communiqué. Most likely, they will call for the withdrawal of "combat forces" by the end of 2014. Of course, they'll do so without defining what they mean by "combat." It's unlikely that they'll specify the size of the residual force and whether its duties will include "combat" in addition to training, logistics, and intelligence services. And, of course, if the 2014 date is questioned vigorously in Lisbon, the leaders could say that four years is the outside date for withdrawal, and that the troops could leave earlier if success arrived earlier. (But this will be hard to say with a straight face.)
The NATO summit is the proper forum for formalizing this policy since NATO members add almost 50,000 troops to the 100,000 strong U.S. contingent. Privately, many NATO partners deeply question what they are about to do. But they don't want to leave their American partner in the lurch. And they all seem to feel they can manage the political backlash to the 2014 time frame. There is little public outrage in any Western society to the war's costs in lives and treasure. And so, in a few weeks, Western leaders will lash one another to the Afghan mast for four more years, at least.
Leslie H. Gelb, a former New York Times columnist and senior government official, is author of Power Rules: How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy (HarperCollins 2009), a book that shows how to think about and use power in the 21st century. He is president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations.