Why Obama Won’t Speed U.S. Troop Withdrawal in Afghanistan

Nothing will speed U.S. troop withdrawals in an election year: not Karzai’s rants, Quran burnings, or even Sgt. Bales’s rampage. By Leslie H. Gelb.

03.19.12 8:45 AM ET

Forget about President Obama expediting U.S. troop withdrawals from Afghanistan this year. It matters not that some American soldiers are coming apart at the seams, killing innocent Afghans, and burning Qurans, or that President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan screams to restrict U.S. operations. Nor will polls showing increasing numbers of Americans fed up with the war induce Obama to press the pullout button. Mr. Obama is not going to take the slightest risk that a faster exit might trigger a collapse of the Kabul government and a Taliban takeover after 10 years of sacrificing American blood and treasure. He’s not going to give warhawk Republicans a campaign issue. Besides, Obama’s aides keep insisting that he still believes in his Afghan goals and strategy. From the day he took office three years ago, Afghanistan became Obama’s war. While this reality may not have dawned on most Americans, the president himself knows it all too well.

When Barack Obama stepped into the White House, only some 34,000 U.S. troops patrolled that historic graveyard for foreign invaders and would-be saviors. He upped that number to about 100,000, in addition to more than 40,000 allied troops. Casualties and costs skyrocketed. It was Obama who trumpeted the unachievable goals of defeating the Taliban and ensuring that al Qaeda never returned to Afghan soil to plot another attack on America soil. With this track record and all the sacrifices, he’s not going to take big chances. So, he’s stuck, and so is the United States.

Obama’s plan has been to reduce the risks of failure by a slow and steady withdrawal process: scaling back the allied combat role, speeding up the training of Afghan forces, and turning over all combat to the Kabul government by the end of 2014. Accordingly, he’s reduced the 100,000 high point by 10,000 already and expects to take out an additional 22,000 by this September. That will leave some 68,000 U.S. troops in country until after the November elections, and there things will stand through November.

Politically, it’s hard to fault Obama. If he sped up this timetable and America’s Afghan allies began to go down the drain, it would surely become a major line of attack by Republicans. They would charge that he ordered the drawdowns for this September for purely political reasons, just to help boost his reelection prospects. They’d charge that U.S. generals in the field warned against this 33,000 withdrawal package and stressed its dangers. And though a majority of America now call for an early U.S. exit from Afghanistan, the public could turn sharply against the president if things soured quickly—even in a war they didn’t like.

Besides, Obama would not find great support among the split American pool of national-security experts. On the one hand, there is a phalanx of military specialists close to the U.S. military who firmly believe the current strategy is working and, given more time, could well succeed. On the other hand, there are experts on Afghanistan, its history and its culture, who generally feel quite the opposite. They see few gains in fighting the Taliban that can outlast a U.S. pullback and fewer hopes in the future viability of the corrupt and highly inefficient Afghan political regime. If worse comes to worst, the military hawks will argue that all would have turned out well if Washington only had the will to fight on for another year, and another. Experts on Afghanistan will continue to stress that not much of lasting benefit can be achieved by American force. Their debate will go on and on.

To me, the only way to think about Afghanistan is to ask the question directly and without prejudice: is it in America’s vital interests to fight on in Afghanistan? To me, the answer is an unequivocal “No.” Bashing the Taliban and al Qaeda was vital 10 years ago after 9/11. But since then, the war against terrorists has become global, and Afghanistan is but a small piece of that. As for the link between Afghanistan and Pakistan, little or nothing that happens in Afghanistan can materially affect the stability of that far, far larger, divided, and nearly ungovernable nation. And no one has a good idea how to cope with Pakistani nuclear weapons. Thus, there is no serious case that Afghanistan is vital to U.S. security.

No matter the absence of vital interests; there is no chance of faster U.S. withdrawals this year. It’s far too risky politically. And besides, Obama believes his strategy is reasonable.

But wait till next year, whoever is president. The fig leaf of vital interests will no longer be sustainable in the postelection marketplace. American and allied leaders will quickly withdraw their combat forces early in 2013, long before the promised exit date: the end of 2014. Of course, America will still help friendlies in Afghanistan. But for the first time in more than a decade, Afghans will largely settle affairs among themselves for good and ill—as is ever ordained in such wars.