I've spent the last few days tussling with friend and foe alike over President Obama's decision to withdraw 33,000 U.S. surge troops in a year's time. I know any sort of middle ground will unhinge lefties and righties both, but don't despair. To Democrats who think the withdrawal number is too small and that the world will end, I tell them to see a psychiatrist. To neoconservatives who think it's too large and the world will end, I also recommend psychiatric care. As much as I'd like to see Obama announce a plan now to reduce U.S. forces to less than 20,000 in two years, such a timetable insults the U.S. military and generates too many uncertainties too soon. And though neocons are balmy to imagine that large-scale U.S. combat forces can or should stay in Afghanistan indefinitely, they're correct that Washington can't sensibly extricate itself from a war without a convincing strategy, which Obama neglected in his speech on Wednesday night.
Having staked out the middle ground on the 33,000 decision, let me tell you what I really think. I think the theme of President Obama's speech should have been "Mission Accomplished." He walked up to that door, but didn't open it dramatically and directly. Unlike Bush's famous "Mission Accomplished" proclamation, this one is essentially true. Obama pointed to the fact that U.S. troops have killed 20 of 30 al Qaeda leaders in the past year alone, including Osama bin Laden, but he could have said a lot more. His own White House aides surely told him, as they told me, that al Qaeda members in Afghanistan "number in the tens." Let me repeat that: not in the hundreds or the thousands, but in the tens. And beating them down to this pulp was the main mission of U.S. forces. Besides, the White House aides surely told their president that Taliban forces in Afghanistan now number between 20,000 and 40,000. (One might have hoped that our intelligence analysts could have been somewhat more precise about this figure.) Even 40,000 is a tiny total when compared to the 200,000 or so friendly Afghans now under arms and the millions of Afghans who purportedly are on our side and hate the Taliban. Obama could have said, accurately, that the U.S. military has already done a great job in bringing the enemy down to levels that should be manageable by friendly Afghans. He also could have said that if the Afghans, with all our support—indeed with all our prospective support—can't cope with 20,000 to 40,000 Taliban, then only heaven can help them. This is not some rhetorical gamesmanship; it is a straightforward statement of the facts.
Besides, U.S. intelligence has no evidence of any continuing and strong connection between the Taliban and al Qaeda, though the Taliban has not formally renounced al Qaeda. Before 9/11, the Taliban gave safe haven to al Qaeda, which is why the U.S. attacked both. If today, the Taliban is interested only in internal power, that is of far less concern to Washington and certainly no cause for a major land war.
Now, there are those in the military and in the neoconservative camp who maintain that, however bright the facts may be today, all progress and safety would vanish in the dust if American troops departed too quickly. Leaving Afghanistan in any appreciable number before three or four years of additional large-scale U.S. combat would just be too risky, they say. But at some point, Washington will have to assume risks in Afghanistan. No student of history could conceivably argue otherwise. Even the biggest hawk doesn't believe the U.S. can leave Afghanistan in near-perfect shape and risk-free.
But then comes the next hallucinatory argument—that leaving Afghanistan with anything less than a U.S. victory would create a nightmare scenario, paving the way for a Taliban takeover of Pakistan with its more than 100 nuclear weapons. Of course, one would have to be insane not to tremble over this prospect. But one would also have to be unstable to actually believe that any particular outcome in Afghanistan could prevent this nightmare in Pakistan. Even if the U.S. achieved total victory in Afghanistan (whatever that means), it would have no appreciable effect on Pakistan's fundamental problems: the growing strength of the Pakistani Taliban, its increasing penetration of the Pakistan military and intelligence units, the increasing divisions within the Pakistani military, the ineptness and corruption of the Pakistan government (does this remind you of Kabul?), and the frightening tribal flaws and class warfare in Pakistani society. Only moderate Pakistanis themselves can have a chance to deal with these monumental challenges, and all sensible people must pray for their success. But no person of any experience could possibly believe that a stable Afghanistan or the miraculous application of American power could somehow measurably affect these tectonic Pakistani fault lines.
America's political leaders and foreign policy experts who dragged us into wars from Afghanistan to Iraq, to Libya, and perhaps next to Iran, always make the same mistakes. They grossly overestimate America's power to solve problems internal to other nations, and they always grossly underestimate the necessity of others dealing with their own problems. Thus, they drag us into one war after another, and then never believe it's safe to get out. They never think about problems in the United States. Listening to them, you'd believe America was the foreign country. America has survived this arrogance and ignorance in the past because we have been so strong at home, so pragmatic in meeting our problems, and so vibrant economically. But as President Obama reminded us once again, now is not the time for another nation-building crusade abroad, but rather for nation-building here at home. My main regret about Obama's speech on Wednesday was that for the umpteenth time he raised this flag about restoring our domestic economy—without beginning to tell us how he would fight and win that crucial war.